Music makes me lose control

Nautilus, you’ve done it again: an elegant post on two of my favorite topics: music and time.  Time and music are inseparable – music takes place over time, and both can be very precise and mathematical. But music also reminds us how subjective time is, which is the theme of Jonathan Berger’s post. The post weaves together connections between music and temporal perception. Here are a few highlights:

  • The tempo of music alters our behaviors – slower music encourages us to slow down and buy more drinks at a bar or spend more time in a grocery store, and familiar background music gives shoppers the impression that they spent longer in a store (though they actually spend more when novel music is played).
  • Our musical attention span is about 4 minutes, thanks to Thomas Edison’s cylinder recordings, which maxed out at 4 minutes.  Even when technology progressed to allow for longer songs, the 4-minute standard remained.
  • When we’re deeply engrossed in something perceptual (like listening to music), the prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for introspecting and high-level cognition, becomes less active than usual, while the sensory cortex becomes more active than usual. These activation patterns likely explain the feeling of flow and timelessness that can occur while listening to music.


In the second half of the post, Berger uses Schubert’s String Quintet to illustrate how “music hijacks our perception of time.” He describes the time warp going on in one section at a time, supporting each with a clip of the audio during the part of the piece he’s describing.

This was a fun “audio tour.” I found that I had to close my eyes to be able to experience the time shifts, though. This could be for a number of reasons, but one interesting possibility is that when a sound clip is embedded in a web page, the bottom right corner of the clip counts down the seconds remaining. Maybe some people can ignore the steadily decreasing numbers, but I am just so drawn to anything marking time. Why might this matter? I’d guess that a large proportion of the music-listening that people do today happens through a computer-like device (iPod, phone, computer) that exposes the listener to a ticking clock. Do we experience less of this music-induced timelessness today than in the past as a result? Or maybe songs like Time of Our Lives could be to blame?

Thanks to this song for title inspiration:


The consequences of being powerful

An Atlantic article, Being Powerful Distorts Time Perception recently caught my attention. The article discusses a few studies that induced feelings of power in a lab setting in order to observe different time-related cognitive consequences.

The first suggested that the more power people have, the more available time they perceive they have. The authors attributed the finding to an overall increased sense of control that powerful people feel, including control over time.

The next study concluded that powerful people tend to underestimate how much time something will take. This seems pretty consistent with the conclusion that people with power perceive themselves to have more time as a result of having control over time. In general, the first two studies discussed seem to suggest that perceiving yourself as powerful distorts your sense of time in a negative way. While it might be less stressful to believe that you have more time in the future, if it leads you to underestimate how long things actually take, it seems like the stress-reducing benefit could be easily reversed. In a real world situation, if an authority figure underestimates the time needed to do things, it seems likely that stressed will be increased for subordinates as well.

I think this image is so awesome. It's by Javier Jaén, from an interesting NYT article on time poverty
I think this image is so awesome. It’s by Javier Jaén, from an interesting NYT article on time poverty

But the third study discussed in the article suggests that people who perceive themselves as more powerful make better future-oriented financial decisions. In a lab setting, people who are primed to feel powerful are less likely than others to take an immediate reward if they’re told they can have a greater sum of money in the future. In other words, they’re less likely to discount future rewards in favor of those in the present. Outside the lab, the researchers found that a person’s perceived power at work actually predicts the amount he or she has in savings. The perception of power is undeniably helpful, according to these results.

So how to reconcile the findings that shine light on the detrimental effects of perceived power with those that suggest that it’s beneficial? The authors of the third study on temporal discounting suggest that people who feel powerful discount the future less because they feel an increased sense of continuity between their present and future selves. Could that same sense of continuity underlie the perception that you have more time or that future tasks will require less time? The connection is unclear to me, but as someone who’s deeply interested in our perception of time and the factors that affect it, I’d like to try to figure it out.

What’s in a name of a hurricane?


A few months ago, a study came out in PNAS that sparked a lot of media interest: Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes. The idea is not that the most severe hurricanes happen to have female names, but instead that more people die in hurricanes that have female names than in those with male names.

500px-Cyclone_Monica The study involved the analysis of death rates for over 60 years, which included 94 hurricanes. The archival data showed that for hurricanes that did little damage, the difference in the death tolls between masculine and feminine hurricanes was marginal. For hurricanes that had greater damage, however, the number of fatalities was substantially higher for female-named storms than for male-named ones. Further, they classified names for how masculine or feminine they are (referred to as the Masculinity-Femininity Index, or MFI). For example, a highly feminine name would be “Eloise,” (with a score of 8.944) while the female name “Charley” was rated as much less feminine (MFI = 2.889). The researchers found that even within feminine-named hurricanes, the more feminine a name was (the greater the MFI score), the higher the number of fatalities. Specifically, their data suggest that if a severe hurricane’s name is Eloise, it will kill 3 times as many people as if it’s named Charley. The explanation for the correlation between might seem intuitive and surprising at the same time: we have gender-based expectations that females are less aggressive. This unconscious bias seems to invoke a lower perceived risk for female hurricanes, so people take fewer precautions like evacuating. In light of these findings, The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the group who names the storms, might want to reevaluate its naming practices to avoid names that might encourage dismissal of a hurricane’s danger. In case they’re looking for inspiration, I have a few suggestions. What NOT to name a female hurricane:

  • Any flower name: this includes Daisy, Petunia, Lilly, and sadly, Rose
  • Pooh Bear (imagine the reactions if meteorologists announced that Hurricane Pooh Bear was headed for the coast)
  • Any name that has repeated syllables: can we expect people to take Coco or Fifi seriously?
  • Any name that’s shared with a Barbie doll, like Skipper, Stacie, and certainly Barbie
"Hurricane Barbie is on her way!"
Hurricane Barbie is on her way!

And some names that people might take more seriously:

  • Names that invoke big, tough women you wouldn’t want to mess with: Bertha, Agnes, or Madea
  • Gender-neutral names, like Alex, Casey, or Jamie
  • Non-human names: names like PX-750 or The Hulk might do the job
If you heard "Hurricane Madea is heading for the coast," what would you do?
Don’t mess with Hurricane Madea.

Synesthesia: The sky, the number 7, and sadness are all blue

NeuWrite San Diego

If you were shown the shapes below and told that one is called a “kiki” and the other a “bouba,” which name would you attribute to which shape? Between 95 and 98% of people agree that the more rigid shape is “kiki,” and the curvy one is “bouba.” This is not because they learned these names in school (they’re made up), but because we’re predisposed to associate information from different modalities. As such, we pair the sharper “k” sound with the shape that has sharper points, and the rounder “b” sound with the rounder shape.


Although we all naturally integrate information from multiple senses to some extent, people with synesthesia do so to a much greater extent. Generally, when synesthetes perceive something through one modality, they have a simultaneous and involuntary perceptual experience in another. There are many different types of synesthesia, but one common form is grapheme-color synesthesia, in…

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Study says, suck it, Shakespeare

When I was growing up, a lot of people, upon learning that my name is Rose, found it clever to say “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I eventually realized that what Shakespeare was saying when he wrote the line is that names are irrelevant – a rose is a rose, regardless of what we call it. The Shakespeare-quoters were basically saying to me (unknowingly, I assume): your name is irrelevant, but hey, look! I know a line from Shakespeare.


A team of researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute conducted a study to investigate the role that an odor’s name has on people’s perception of the smell. They had people smell different odors that were accompanied by either a positive, negative, or neutral name. Positive names included countryside farm (is that really a positive-sounding smell?) and dried cloves. Negative ones included dry vomit and dentist’s office. Neutral ones were things like numbers. The names did not actually correspond to the smells, so any effects of name on perception didn’t result from the positive sounding smells actually smelling better. The researchers had participants rate the pleasantness, intensity, and arousal of the smells, and they also collected participants’ heart rates and skin conductances as they smelled the scents as measures of physiological arousal.

Perhaps not surprisingly, smells were rated to be significantly more pleasant and arousing when they were accompanied by positive names than when accompanied by neutral or negative names. Smells were rated as most intense when they had negative names, as opposed to neutral or positive ones. Taken together, the findings suggest that the names we use to describe odors (and many other aspects of our world) affect the way we perceive the actual smells. More specifically, we probably use the odor names to make a prediction, even if it’s a very general one, about what we’re about to experience. These predictions, in turn, seem to color our actual experience with the world, often in self-fulfilling manners.

I wonder if we could harness this knowledge of the effect of positive-sounding odor names to make certain jobs, like latrine odor judges, slightly more pleasant…

Notables from Nautilus chapter: Perception

In a previous post, I wrote about my introduction to the multidisciplinary publication Nautilus, whose current issue’s topic is Time.

Here are some of my highlights from Chapter 2: Perception:

A quote from Making good use of bad timing, by Matthew Hutson:

Like photos in an album, the causal links between [the scenes of our lives] must be inferred. And we do that, in part, by considering their sequence and the minutes, days, or years that pass between them. Perceptions of time and causality each lean on the other, transforming reality into an unreliable swirl.

In this article, Hutson tackles the widely-asked question: Why does time fly when you’re having fun? There’s a generally accepted model of our perception of time as a pacemaker. The pacemaker emits “ticks,” which are general bursts of neural firing, and they’re collected by an accumulator. To perceive time, we compare the number of ticks acquired over a given time to some reference stored in memory. If we’re distracted from these ticks, however, as is likely to be the case when doing something fun or something that puts us in a state of flow, we’ll perceive fewer ticks and consequently perceive that less time has passed. On the contrary, when we’re doing a task that requires attention, we might be hyper-aware of the accumulation of ticks, and time might speed up. Intriguing as this model is, no one has discovered correlations in the brain for the proposed pacemaker or accumulator.

Screen shot 2014-01-25 at 1.55.55 PM

In Why we procrastinate, Alisa Opar writes that we see our future selves as distinct people from our current selves. She cites an fMRI study to show this. When people think about themselves, there is more blood flow in the medial prefrontal cortex and rostral anterior cingulate cortex than when they think about others. The researchers found that when people talked about their future selves, they had less blood flow in the brain areas associated with thinking about the self; in fact, their blood flow patterns looked similar to those exhibited when thinking about other people. Further, individuals who had the least activation in these brain areas when thinking or speaking about their future selves were also the ones who were least likely to favor long-term financial gains over short-term ones. In other words, they experienced their future selves as more distinct from their current selves than the people who were more likely to favor long-term gains. In short, she writes, “their future self ‘felt’ more like somebody else.'”

In another study, participants were told that the experiment was on disgust and involved drinking a mix of ketchup and soy sauce. The more they drank, they were told, the more they would further science. Some participants had to agree to an amount that they would drink that day, others to an amount they would drink next semester, and still others to an amount that their friend would drink today. The group that had to agree to an amount they would drink in the present pledged to drink significantly less than the participants who were agreeing for their future selves or their friends (and the pledge amounts for future selves and friends did not significantly differ from each other). Again, it appears that we think of ourselves in the future in the third person, in the way that we think of others. The solution to reducing procrastination or making better decisions in the present, it would seem, must involve strengthening our connection to our future selves.

This chapter even includes a short time-inspired fictional story, reminding me of how many different and interesting ways there are to approach the topic of time.

Human perception circa 1959

I recently saw this review of The Human Body: What it is and How it works, a book published in 1959 containing vivid illustrations of the body.

Two images in particular really struck me. The first is a representation of 4/5 of our senses, our modes of perceiving the world around us:



The second is a representation of olfaction:

cranial nerve


I’m not sure if I totally “get” these illustrations, or even if there is much to understand. Either way, they’re really visually appealing, even if devoid of much meaningful information…

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

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…

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.”

Little known benefits of a positive mood

I just read an interesting paper by Marta Kutas called One lesson learned: frame language processing- literal and figurative- as a human brain function. In it, she discusses common assumptions underlying much research on language processing and their evolution over time. Instead of treating language as a brain function that can be isolated from all others, she calls for a more open-minded approach to psycholinguistic research, one that incorporates the contexts of both hemispheres, the importance of timing for linguistic processing, personality traits and moods, and individual differences as a proxy for experience.

One part that I found especially interesting was the section on the power of an individual’s mood as an aspect of context that can influence perception. One study she mentions found that the mood induced by the researchers (positive, negative, or neutral) affected whether participants were more attuned to the global or specific characteristics of an image. Those who were happy were more likely than those in a neutral or negative mood to use the shape of an image (a global characteristic) as a criterion for making decisions when shown novel stimuli, while other participants seemed to be more attuned to the features of the image.

Participants in positive moods have also demonstrated to be better at solving difficult problems by coming up with less obvious solutions. People in positive moods also produce more associations (and more unusual ones) when given a word. Along these lines, they have also demonstrated a greater sensitivity to more distant relations between words. For example, when given the words “bee,” “comb,” and “dew,” and asked to come up with a fourth that can be combined with all of them, participants in happy moods tended to outperform those in neutral moods.

The word "honey" occurred to participants in a positive mood more quickly than those in a neutral or negative mood. Image:
The word “honey” occurred to participants in a positive mood more quickly than those in a neutral or negative mood.

Finally, a positive mood may also be able to modulate some aspect of contextual of semantic analysis and contextual integration. In ERP studies, the N400 component is often more active when participants encounter unexpected stimuli. When participants read sentences in which the final word was unexpected (such as, “They wanted to make the hotel look more like a tropical resort. So, along the driveway they planted rows of tulips.”), participants who were in a positive mood elicited smaller N400 amplitudes than those in neutral moods. In other words, they were less surprised by the unpredictable endings, possibly because it was easier for them to draw a less-obvious solution than it was for other participants to do so.

Surely we know our mood has many consequences in how we perceive situations and act in them, but the idea that it may also affect perception and cognition that we typically consider outside the realm of mood is pretty interesting. It seems to help us think flexibly and to have a more open mind. Just one more complicating contextual factor that should be taken into account when studying cognition…