Slow time in my mouth

A few days ago a friend and I were in the chemist’s, where we had a go on a device that measures weight and bioimpedance to provide various facts and figures about weight, percentage of body fat and so on. The feature that caught my attention was the machine’s ability to show us what the demonstrator kept calling our “real” age – a figure that supposedly reflects the stresses and wear caused by poor diet and other inappropriate lifestyle choices. Of course for both of us it was much higher than our calendar ages. I think what was being measured was our metabolic age, though it wasn’t till afterwards that we thought of that. At the time it felt as though a hidden ageing schedule was being revealed to us through this technological interface, a schedule that made me want to run to the shelves behind me and buy everything I could to make up for the ten years I’d just had taken from me.

Perhaps that was the idea: perhaps the machine is part of an industrial medical complex that exists to foment the sort of doubt and fear in people that makes them susceptible to anti-ageing advertising. But what it put me in mind of first was the Brain Training games on the Nintendo DS, and their idea of “Brain Age”. Your performance in a set of cognitive tasks – mental arithmetic, pattern-matching, language processing – is recorded and your progress measured through your changing “Brain Age”. When I started I was pretty poor, with a correspondingly ancient Brain Age, but practice led to an apparent rejuvenation and I achieved a Brain Age of twenty-one, the lowest, at which point of course I put it away and haven’t looked at it since. I certainly got much better at the tasks I practised, which you might expect, but I don’t think my brain is younger than me. Of course it isn’t: it’s some kind of metaphor. It might make sense to say of someone, “their cognitive ability is closer to an average twenty-five year-old’s than to someone their own age: it’s as if their brain is twenty-five, not thirty-five”. But the notion of Brain Age omits the “as if”, in the same way that we do if we find ourselves saying, “she has the skin of a twenty year-old”. The difference between this sort of everyday speech and the presentation of “brain age” or “real age” is that there’s some work being done – through promotional materials and user interfaces – to reify what ought properly to be considered metaphorical.

What these two things have in common is that through this linguistic action they dissociate part of you from yourself and offer an alternative chronology for that part. The body sensor divides you from your biology and claims to reveal the alternative timeline that your body is following: the Brain Training software purports to show you the different time that your brain lives by (and goes a step further in helping you intervene positively). It’s interesting that the aim in Brain Training is not to reunite the two timelines but to preserve a difference between the brain’s age and your calendar age. I imagine that the makers of the body sensor would think that people use it similarly to support efforts to appear younger than their calendar age. I would prefer to have a brain the same age as me than to be stuck again with my inexperienced, hasty twenty-one-year-old brain, though I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t want to repair the damage done to lungs and skin by the last ten years.

Anyway, what these alternative biological chronologies reminded me of was Nick Lee and Johanna Motzkau’s notion of ‘biosocial imaginations’, the many ways of conceptualising relations between biological processes and social contexts. One example they suggest is the adjustment of human life processes to improve educational outcomes, a biosocial imagination they describe as “tweaking” (and one that is instantiated in the use of nutritional supplements to improve cognitive functions and exam performance in children). Perhaps what I’m thinking of as “alternative biological chronologies” might be thought of as another biosocial imagination.

Two key features of these alternative bio-chronologies are that they are revealed through some sort of technological mediation (standing on a body sensor, or interacting with brain training software), and that they arise from a linguistic omission, treating a metaphor in a literal sense. The primary feature, of course, is that they aren’t true – that is, they aren’t consistent with the way we commonly understand time acting in relation to matter. Time can’t move faster or slower for different parts of the same material entity, at least not in an everday sort of way.

I mention this last point not because being factually grounded is a particularly important aspect of any biosocial imagination, but to contrast these bio-chronologies with another technologically-mediated timescale that has a personal resonance. I was recently fitted with a set of dental braces, which change the location of various teeth within my mouth through a process of bone remodelling, in which the pressure on individual teeth causes bone on the load-bearing side to be broken down, and new bone to be formed on the other side. The effect of this is for teeth to slowly shuffle their way through the jaw into new positions. It’s like drawing a spoon through soup, but much, much slower.

I hadn’t considered my bones to be like liquid, capable of having teeth dragged through them. But now I have a reminder that while I spend my time at the same rate as before, inside my mouth a process is unfolding on a very different timescale. Inside my mouth is slow time.

You could think of this as an alternative bio-chronology, one revealed through technological intervention. But it seems different to the two examples above because there doesn’t seem to be any tension with my calendar age. It isn’t offering an alternative chronology, I suppose, just a different perspective on the same one I was using. Seconds are still seconds and years are still years in there, but what’s achieved is on a different scale to what happens elsewhere in my body. Perhaps this difference is because what this chronology concerns is a process, not an entity: understanding the process of “moving teeth a small way” only makes sense when considered on this slower time, rather than everyday time, and it doesn’t involve disassociating any part of me from myself. Considering it a ‘biosocial imagination’ seems inappropriate as well, somehow – it’s only me involved, not a network of producers and technologists and marketers and consumers worried about ageing. So it’s a different thing, and one that’s more meaningful, to me.

In a way, thinking about this other chronology makes me feel more myself, as if I’m more aware of the processes that constitute and embody me, rather than giving me the feeling that parts of me have been living a secret hidden life, as the first two examples do. I prefer the idea of being all the same age. But I also like knowing that the processes that constitute me extend different distances into my future. My present is sort of smeared and blurred, and made up of things that happen on different scales, and that means that everyone else’s is too.