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…