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 elasticity of time

This book review (for a book I have not yet read) caught my eye and put a new spin on time, one of my favorite topics. The author (of the review, and I presume, of the book) emphasizes that time is not an objective truth, but a subjective concept that we mentally construct. The fixed period of one day or one month can have such a different feeling depending on circumstances. When you’re having a bad day, or eagerly awaiting something that will happen tomorrow, a day can feel interminable. When you’re on vacation, an entire week can pass before you’ve even fully settled in. The author referred to this property as the “elasticity” of time.

Perception of time is subjective, elastic, and variable. Image:
Perception of time is subjective, elastic, and variable.

I really like this idea from the book, Time Warped:  it is “strangely empowering to think that the very phenomenon depicted as the unforgiving dictator of life is something we might be able to shape.” I think a lot about how the language we speak might affect our perceptions of, thoughts about, and behaviors related to time, but maybe there are many other factors that can shape this abstract concept for us.

The author also highlighted the relationship between time and memory, saying that time has an impact on memory, but memory also shapes our perception of time. Memories and past experiences shape our perception of time in the present, allowing us to relate what’s going on to things (and time) that have already passed.

A final quote that struck me:

“We will never have total control over this extraordinary dimension. Time will warp and confuse and baffle and entertain however much we learn about its capacities.”

What if…?

I think a lot about linguistic relativity– the idea that the language I speak might profoundly influence the way I perceive the world, conceptualize it, and/or habitually act in it is so seductive. Yesterday I was listening to a “Talk the Talk” podcast called “Time in Amondawa,” and I started thinking about what life would be like if I spoke another language. In it, the linguistic Chris Sinha argues that the Amondawa tribe has no term for the abstract concept of “time,” and they don’t use spatial metaphors to talk about it, as we do in most languages (things like “waiting a long time,” or “looking forward to the future”). In addition, as in many languages, their number system consists of “one,” “two,” and “many.” That’s it.


Cultural differences aside, what would life be like if we had no way of talking about time or quantifying anything?! When I think about my thoughts over the course of the day, I think most of them revolve around one of those two things (or often both, when I think things like “I only have 17 minutes to get to this appointment”). Since I mainly define myself by my habitual thoughts, and I do believe that lacking ways of expressing certain concepts can dramatically alter the way you think about them, who would I be? What kind of things would we talk about? Our culture and society have evolved with time and numbers as a foundation. Would it still have been possible to become as advanced as we have without them?