Reflections on time

I recently finished the book Time Warped, which, according to the subtitle, “unlock[s] the mysteries of time perception.” The author, Claudia Hammond, does present a lot of intriguing studies from psychology, neuroscience, and biology to explain time, but for me, the book may actually have uncovered more mysteries than solving them.

The first intriguing point that the book brought to awareness is that time is not a thing. It’s a concept that we create in our minds, and is therefore intimately connected to our memory, concentration, emotion, and sense that it’s rooted in space. It constantly catches us off guard, for example when we’re doing something we enjoy and then realize a few hours have passed, or when we’re anticipating something and the hours seem to drag endlessly. Further, we will never get used to this phenomenon. We’ll never stop commenting on it or attempting to control and manipulate time’s passing.

Another point that really hit home for me was the possibility that our bodies likely play a part in time perception (Lately I’m wondering if any aspect of cognition is NOT linked to our bodies…). What I like about this explanation is that it leaves room for contributions by a number of brain systems and body parts to our perception of time. In short, Hammond argues that in order to perceive and measure time, we integrate information from neuronal activity in a number of areas in our brains (she makes cases for involvement of the cerebellum, basal ganglia, frontal lobe, and anterior insular cortex) and physiological symptoms of our bodies (such as physical discomfort and gut feelings- those feelings that are psychological but on the verge of physical).

Another link between our physical bodies and our perception of time was uncovered by Mark Price (paper is not yet published), who had time/space synesthetes (people who have vivid mental pictures of time- like the images below, for example) draw a diagram of how they see the months of the year. The participants then sit at a computer that randomly flashes up months on the screen, and they’re instructed to press one button for months early in the year and another for months occurring late in the year. He found that when the position of a person’s spatial representation of a month occurs in the same position as the key they need to press, they do so more quickly. For example, if March is in the left-hand corner of their mental map of the year, they’ll be quicker at hitting the key indicating that March occurs earlier in the year if that key is on the left side of the keyboard, and slower if the key is on the right side.

These are two possibilities of individuals' spatial representations of time. Image: sciencedirect.com

These are two possibilities of individuals’ spatial representations of time.
Image: sciencedirect.com

To me, this is a huge argument for embodied cognition. Time is a concept created by humans and not based in any physical thing, yet our physical body seems to have an inevitable influence over our perception of time. I wonder how much differences in our perceptiveness of bodily feelings affects our conceptualization of time…

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6 comments

  1. My body tells me a lot about time, simply when I need a dose of caffeine – I have a rough idea of what time it is. Even babies’ bodies become regulated to time, even though people try to regulate the babies’ bodies and get them “on schedule”.
    Thank you, interesting site.

  2. Thanks for this! I too am a believer in embodied cognition. I’m especially interested in the body’s role in the reception of rhetoric (my dissertation is about the rhetorical manipulation of bodies in Marine recruit training).

  3. I have time space synesthesia and like most, didn’t realize other people didn’t visually “think” of days of the week , or months like I do.
    Shapes are the same, but my perception of that shape changes from where in the week or year I am viewing from.
    I wonder if it helped me in any way while in school. During exams I would visualize the page the information I needed was on. Wasn’t perfect , but made school and post grad far easier I feel.

    1. That’s very cool! Your speculation about benefits of synesthesia carrying over to help in other areas sounds pretty reasonable – I’m not sure if there’s any empirical evidence that people with synesthesia are able to visualize other things more vividly, but it wouldn’t be too surprising!

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