Time Lensing

by Venkat on June 4, 2012

We all experience lenses and fun-house mirrors from an early age. Some people were glasses, while others have very acute vision, better than 20/20. Some are colorblind while presumably others are more sensitive to color differences. We know that there are birds and animals that see space very differently from us.

So we are used to the idea that our perception of space depends on how we see. We are used to the idea that if how we see space by default isn’t good enough, we can buy and use telescopes and microscopes to change how we see.

Time is actually a very similar dimension and exhibits exactly the same phenomena, but our intuitions around time are far worse.

For example, if you are angry or sick, time can seem to pass much more slowly than if you are having fun or are healthy. Alcohol generally slows down the perception of time passing (a drunken hour seems longer than a sober one).  Coffee speeds it up.

Various meditative practices or extraordinary situations (like being involved in a major fire, being on a battlefield, etc.) can make time appear to almost stand still, or make hours seem like minutes.

There has been some systematic study of these things (which I’ve referenced in Tempo, such as the early work of Ornstein), but in general, the phenomenology of time perception is largely unstudied. It is just hard to study in laboratory conditions. But it is not hard to study in your own life.

It is useful to think of yourself as going through life with varying kinds of time lenses stuck between your consciousness and the universe. Sometimes you are experiencing time through a microscope or telescope. Sometimes in a convex mirror. You can deliberately put on different types of time glasses for different purposes (coffee, alcohol, music). You can learn mindfulness meditation — the equivalent of getting Lasik surgery for your time-eyes.

The value of gaining some conscious control over your time-perception is that you can experience reality at different levels of resolution, both external reality and your own thoughts. Sometimes it is useful to see all the pores in your time-skin, just as it is useful to see your hair roots in a convex mirror while shaving.

If you are a computer science or information theory geek, you can think of consciousness as having a sort of raw bit-rate, and your time-lens as being able to experience that stream at a certain sampling rate and resolution.

But I am not particularly enamored of the idea of developing strong time-vision for its own sake. So long as I am wearing time-lenses appropriate to the task at hand, I am fine. I don’t need an electron microscope when a hand-held magnifying glass will do.

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RG June 4, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Philip Zimbardo’s short TED video at http://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_prescribes_a_healthy_take_on_time.html discusses different ways of seeing and experiencing time.

Maus June 8, 2012 at 6:29 pm

I participated in an NSF funded program for young scientists (well before my ambition to be a chemist was transmuted into settling for humanities and the law) in which a partner and I designed a time perception study under the tutelage of a psychology professor at the local university. Our hypothesis was that long-distance runners and swimmers, recruited from local high schools, would have better time perception wrt duration of non-athletic activities than a control group of non-athletes. We asked them to estimate the time spent reading a short passage of literature and, in a second case, the time spent listening to a burst of monotone sound. In general, our hypothesis was confirmed by the data; but our study sample was too small to be statistically significant. I’ve been fascinated by the variability of time perception ever since.

It would be interesting to study the difference between those who wear analog watches and those who use a cell phone as their time piece. For the past several years, I fall into the latter class ; and I am much less conscious of the passage of time without the constant reminder of a watch face.

Venkat June 11, 2012 at 11:07 am

Yes, I am in the cellphone category too. That hypothesis is very interesting.

Basically, getting weaned off external time cues might make people more attuned to internal body clocks I think. Would be interesting to see that studied in different ways.

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