The Time Keeper: Review and Reflection

Try to imagine a life without timekeeping.
You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie.
Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays.
Man alone measures time.
Man alone chimes the hour.
And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures.
A fear of time running out.

How do our minds make sense of such vastly complex concepts like time? It’s a perennial cognitive science question and one taken up by Mitch Albom in his novel The Time Keeper. The book is about an ancient man named Dor, the inventor of the first clock and a time keeping hobbyist. As a punishment for trying to measure time, Dor is sent to a cave for 6,000 years. While in the cave, he hears voices from people all over earth, constantly asking for more time. He experiences intense loneliness, and quickly realizes that the immortality he’s received is no gift. When he’s allowed out of the cave, he’s given an hourglass that lets him selectively slow time to a near halt and the task to teach two people what he’s learned about time.

time keeper

One of these people wants too much time. This is Victor Delamonte, fourteenth richest man in the world and dying from cancer. Victor decides that he will have his body cryogenically frozen, to be rejuvenated and cured once medicine has advanced enough. Victor wants to live forever.

The other character Dor is sent to help wants too little time. Sarah Lemon is a high school senior who has been humiliated and cast off by a boy she mistakenly believed to be her boyfriend. Sarah wants to die.

Both Victor and Sarah cross paths with Dor in modern New York City in the watch shop where Dor now works. Victor decides he will be frozen before he’s officially dead to increase his chances of success, and Sarah decides she will kill herself. Moments before they follow through with their radical and opposite actions, Dor slows time to bring them together and teach them what he’s learned about time: “‘Man wants to own his existence. But no one owns time… When you are measuring time, you are not living it.'”

We treat time as a thing. My Google calendar may as well be my homepage. The rare room lacking a clock feels like a prison. We take ownership of our time when we capture it in photographs, sign contracts for work we will complete, and invest our money for the future. We talk about wasting or saving time just the same way we talk about wasting or saving food. Albom reminds us that despite our language, cultural practices, and technological innovations, despite the fact that we can measure and quantify time in amazingly precise and meticulous ways, we do not control time. As Dor was told at the beginning of his sentence in the cave, “‘The length of your days does not belong to you.'”

What is this thing we call time?

What is this thing we call time?
In English it sits on a line.
How do we know?
Our gestures, they show
Future in front, past behind.

But this is not true for everyone
For Mayans’, word time same as sun
Time revolves like a turn
From which we did learn
Studying time is even more fun!

Image from Walker, E. & Cooperrider, K. (2015). The continuity of metaphor: Evidence from temporal Gestures.
Image from Walker, E. & Cooperrider, K. (2015). The continuity of metaphor: Evidence from temporal Gestures.


Inspired by Le Guen, O. & Pool Balam, L.I. (2012). No metaphorical timeline in gesture and cognition among Yucatec Maya. Frontiers in Psychology, 3: 271. doi:  10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00271

Getting people to think about the next 10,000 years

Thinking about tomorrow is hard enough for some of us. Not to mention thinking about one year from now, or, oh gosh, retirement.

There are a few explanations for why we sometimes screw over our future selves. One research-backed idea is that the more we conceptualize our future selves as someone distinct from ourselves, the less inclined we are to do things now that will help that person. It even seems possible that nuances in a language’s grammar – specifically, whether it requires a future tense to talk about events in the future – might encourage this sense of disconnect between the current and future selves. For example, in English it’s standard to say “it will rain tomorrow,” but that exact same sentiment, in other languages like German, can (and often must) be expressed without any future tense marker. Keith Chen has found that speakers of languages that do grammatically distinguish the present and future tend to save less money, are more obese, and engage in more behaviors that will probably hurt their future selves, like having risky sex and smoking (for more on this, I’ve blogged about it!).

This research on conceptualizing our future selves came to mind when I read a Nautilus piece today called Living in the Long. The author, Heather Sparks, gives readers a peek into some projects by the Long Now Foundation. The name intrigued me, so I checked them out. Here’s sentence that greets the site’s visitors: “The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years. Read more…” Don’t mind if I do, Long Now. That’s a hefty goal.


There are lots of cool things about Long Now that I won’t touch on in this post, but one thing that really left an impression on me is its perfect name. By and large, research on why people don’t do enough for their future selves is that those future people are not here now. If I want to spend money on a new computer right now or I want to call in sick even though I’m healthy right now, these desires might outweigh the quiet voice coming from a future self who really seems to be a different person than I am today anyway. The name Long Now encourages us to think of the long-term consequences of our actions not as events in the future, but events that are now – we just need to tweak our definition of now.

What would happen if we got rid of the word future? I don’t think everyone everywhere would just stop polluting, squandering money, or doing drugs. But if it encouraged every one of us to shift our idea of the future just a little closer to right now, could all these micro-shifts add up to some world-changing behaviors?

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:

Our multiple selves

By and large, we think of ourselves as one person. But below this conscious self conceptualization, we also tend to think of ourselves as being composed of multiple selves. Just a few of my many selves include slow-but-steady runner, ex-harpist, quasi-fluent French speaker, and first born. As I write this, I’m all of those, but a better description of my current state is probably amateur blogger. Traits aside, I’m also present-me. I’m not quite the same person future-me, who I count on to get out of bed tomorrow morning despite the darkness, or even-more-future-me, who will be eligible to withdraw the interest accrued from my Roth IRA at age 59 and a half.

The latter dimension of selves – the ones that inhabit the future – is a fundamental aspect of one of the projects I’m working on right now (present-me is chipping away in hopes that a future-me will learn something valuable). After reading and thinking extensively about how patterns in language might moderate the similarity we perceive between our current and future selves, I found this awesome Atlantic article from 2008: First Person Plural. The article seamlessly pulls together wisdom from diverse lines of research in order to show us why we should care about our multiple selves.

It starts by talking about happiness. Empirical studies of what makes people happy often turn up paradoxes. For example, whether people are happier while working or while on vacation seems to be a no-brainer. But when they actually record their happiness at regular intervals during a given day, it turns out that their moods are better while at work. One difficulty in addressing the question what makes a person happy is articulating what happiness is and how it can be operationalized, but another, less apparent difficulty is defining what exactly is meant by the person. The same action or circumstance might have very different effects on the current person and some future person. If I’m in the market for a new laptop, choosing a less expensive model might bum me out on the day that I’m buying it, but it might make me really happy the next day when I have enough money left over for a printer. Or… saving money on the laptop might make me feel great in the moment that I’m saving, but disappointed in the future when I realize its glacial operating speed. We’re tricky.

The author promotes a view that although our brains do give rise to a sense of self that persists over time, we also have different selves continuously shifting in prominence. Especially when we look farther into the future, our future selves appear progressively less similar to our present selves. fMRI research by Ersner-Hershfield and colleagues has shown that similar brain areas active when we think about other people and when we think about our future selves. There is more overlap between these activity patterns than there is when we think about ourselves today and ourselves in the future, lending support to the idea that we really do perceive of our future selves as other selves.

Even if we don’t necessarily consciously think of our future selves as someone else, we all do seem to know that sometimes we have to do things now in order to restrict the influence our future selves will have over something. A college roommate of mine used to set three alarms for the morning, and made sure that one was all the way across the room – she knew that the only way to assure that her future self got out of bed and made it to class was if she’d need to physically get up to turn off an alarm. Some people disable their social media sites for a pre-specified amount of time while working under a deadline so that even if they try to procrastinate through Facebook, the site just won’t load. Even if we believe we have free will, we don’t necessarily believe that the person we are at this very moment will have free will over the person we are at some future time.



This idea of multiple selves can help explain the paradox of having children. Most people report that their children are a huge source of their happiness. But studies have shown that people are actually less happy while spending time with their kids than they are doing many other activities, like eating or praying. Surveys also show that people’s marital satisfaction decreases once they have kids and increases once those kids leave the house. The author claims that claims that kids make people happy and the reality that many people report less happiness when taking care of kids aren’t incompatible. Instead, the person who loves having kids can just be considered a different person than the one who dislikes actually spending time with them. (Of course, I don’t have kids, so I’m taking other people’s word for all of this).

In general, we don’t look kindly on people whose short-term selves alone control their behavior. We feel that present self should make decisions that benefit future self, such as eating well and saving money. But disregarding the short term selves in favor of benefitting the long term selves can also be dangerous. It can result in missing out on everyday experiences that can enhance life in favor of future ones (that you may never even profit from). The adage “everything in moderation” applies to the power we allocate to our many selves. Each should get a voice in our decisions, but sometimes certain voices should also trump others.

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.

Metaphors we speed by

I was half-listening to this Ted Talk by Carl Honoré, In praise of slowness, as I folded laundry. Honoré’s argument is exactly what you might expect: the pace of modern life continues to accelerate, and it’s wreaking havoc on our mental, physical, and environmental health (NB: I do realize the slight irony of listening to this talk while folding laundry). As I was listening, it occurred to me that, although he never says this, he blames our modern speed on the metaphors we use to talk about time. He mentions that in western cultures we talk about time as a “draining resource,” and frequently say things like, “you either use it or lose it. And we don’t just talk about time this way, saying things like “time is money,” but we think about time as a limited resource, and we act accordingly; in other words, we speed up our actions. Listening to Honoré, I immediately thought back to the 1980 book by Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors we Live By, which claims that the metaphors we speak shape the way we conceive of and act in the world. I think about time a lot and how we make sense of it, but this was a novel angle for reflecting about the question for me. I wonder if we were to start talking about time differently, would we think about it differently too? What if we all adapted my favorite metaphor for time, Thoreau’s “time is but a stream I go a-fishing in”? Could new metaphors encourage us to slow down?


What language has to do with saving money

Keith Chen has proposed that the language we speak can affect our future-oriented behaviors. Some languages, like English, require that speakers grammatically mark future events, thus distinguishing them from present events. For example, we would have to say, “today it is raining,” and “tomorrow it will rain.” Other languages make the grammatical distinction between present and future either optional or nonexistent. In German, for example, the equivalent of our phrase “tomorrow it will rain” is “Morgen regnet es” (it rains tomorrow). Whether referring to rain in the moment or in the future, Germans need not modify the tense of the verb. Chen describes languages like English as strong-FTR (future-time reference), and languages like German as weak-FTR.

Undoubtedly, languages vary in many ways on how they talk about the future – the distinction strong- versus weak-FTR might be an oversimplification in a way, but distinguishing the two types based on whether grammatically marking the future is necessary makes the binary split possible. After just reading about the two different language types, my intuition was that the concept of the future would be more salient for speakers of languages like English who are forced by their language to mark it grammatically. In this case, we might expect speakers of these languages to demonstrate more future-oriented behaviors. This seems to be the trend in general with language on thought effects – when speakers of a language must attend to a feature of the world to encode it in their language, their behavior often reflects that heightened attention.

However, this isn’t what Chen found. He found that speakers of weak-FTR languages, those whose languages don’t require that they grammatically distinguish the present from the future,  save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese. In other words, it sounds like treating the present and future the same grammatically is connected to better forward-looking behaviors. He found this effect at the level of individual households and on the more macro level of countries’ saving rates as a whole. He was even able to identify 7 countries in which a large population speaks a weak-FTR language and another large portion speaks a strong-FTR language. When comparing families who spoke each type of language (and controlling for potentially every variable possible), he found that those families who spoke the weak-FTR language showed significantly more future-oriented behaviors than those who spoke strong-FTR behaviors.


The fact that the reverse finding (strong-FTR speakers exhibit more future-oriented behaviors) could have easily been explained (as a result of heightened attention to the future) is only a little troubling to me. The thoroughness of Chen’s study, evident in the number of languages, survey measures, and controlled variables adds a lot to its credibility. Because grammatical structures like future marking take many generations to evolve, it’s unlikely that cultures who focus more on saving would have adapted their language to reflect that value. Plus, if they had done that, it would be more likely for them to have added a grammatical distinction between the present and future, as a reflection of the importance they attribute to the future.

But as I was talking it over with a friend, I came up with another thought. Because many features of language do reflect cultural values, is it possible that cultures that strive to be economical, or in other words, to waste nothing, do so both in their language and  in their economic practices? For example, Mandarin is a weak-FTR language. I know it also does not contain articles and has a much more straightforward counting system than English does. To me, these features could all be described as “economical.” Might such language features correlate with savings? Maybe it could even account for why speakers of those languages are less obese and smoke less – excess food and cigarettes are seen as just that – excesses that detract from economical practices. I’m skeptical that this could be an explaining factor also because Chen found that almost no other language features could predict the future-oriented effects as well as FTR, but I suppose it’s possible that FTR is one of the most consistent and reliable measures of whether a language tends to be economical.

If this finding is reflective of a true cognitive difference resulting from a grammatical feature of language, it’s a pretty important one. Just in case, I think I stop using the future tense.

A homunculus for time

Last week, Chris Fry, Twitter’s Senior VP for Engineering and a UCSD Cog Sci alum, came to talk at our department’s open house. The theme of his talk was why a PhD (specifically one from our department) was a good investment and helps him to be successful even in a career that’s seemingly far from academia.

There’s a metaphor he used that I can’t get out of my head this week. He talked about the homunculus, which, in the brain sciences, refers to the disproportionate mapping of different body parts in the motor and somatosensory cortices. In other words, the portion of the motor cortex devoted to hand movement is much larger than the proportion of the hand to the actual physical body, which explains why we can do much more dexterous movements with our hands than with our toes, for example.


Fry commented that he imagines a homunculus for time in his memory. Each unit of time (usually we measure time in years) is not necessarily represented in his memory as the true portion that the period comprises in a person’s life. Grad school, he noted, was a disproportionately large chunk of his time homunculus. He seemed to suggest that it was a time of freedom and intensity, and a time in which he learned extensively and made many memories.

This metaphor takes an aspect of time that we’re all aware of – equivalent units of time often do not feel equal – and makes it concrete. His articulation was certainly effective in inspiring me to make this chunk of my temporal homunculus as disproportionally large as possible.

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.