The Time Illusion

I’ve just started the book Time Warped, which deals with our experiences of time. Time is not a thing, Claudia Hammond expresses, but instead a perception. Even though we seem to have the sense that it’s somehow rooted in space, it’s an abstract concept , and our experiences with it can be affected by so many variables.

We’re obsessed with time- the word alone is used more often than any other noun in the English language, but the word is also quite ubiquitous. The Merriam Webster entry for “time” is so long that I got bored and stopped reading around definition #10.

Chapter 1, “The Time Illusion,” is all I’ve read so far, but it’s intrigued me. Hammond first talks about how our perceptions of time are much more impressive than we tend to give them credit for. Just in holding a conversation, in order to produce and understand speech, we rely on timings that are fractions of a second (for example, we hear “pa” when the timing between the consonant and vowel is slightly longer; otherwise, we hear “ba”). Similarly, coordinating limb and muscle movements requires the estimation of milliseconds.

Empirical studies have shown that people’s sense of time is greatly affected by the situation they’re in (which is not really surprising to anyone who’s sat through a seemingly endless class, while spending hours in good company seems to fly by). When people are afraid, bored, or feeling rejected, time slows down, so these people are more likely to overestimate the amount of time that has passed. Interestingly, people with depression are also likely to give time estimations that are on average twice as long as those who aren’t depressed, giving depressed people the illusion that time is going at half its normal speed. Hammond writes, “This leads me to wonder whether in some cases depression could be considered a disorder of time perception.” An interesting take on a widely debated topic, I think.

Along these lines, she reports that children with ADHD tend to do poorly on timing tasks, again possibly because 5 minutes feels much longer to someone with ADHD. One researcher, Katya Rubia, has used time estimation tasks as a way to detect ADHD, and has correctly done so 70% of the time (Hammond also points out that there is currently no conclusive test for ADHD, so this is quite a feat). This seems to suggest to me that an abnormal sense of time may underlie many of the ailments that plague our society.

Our culture is extremely focused on time… and we also have many members who battle depression and ADHD. Is this a coincidence, or is there some connection?

I really liked Hammond’s inclusion of this quote by Saint Augustine because it reiterates the complexity of time:

“What then is time? If no one asks me, then I know. If I wish to explain it to someone who asks, I know it not.”


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