'Time Warped': The Many Ways Humans Experience Time

This program is rebroadcast from May 28, 2013.

Time flies. Time stands still. We’ll look at time and human perception.


Time is weirdly elastic. Physics and philosophy have their explanations, but every human knows it’s true. Time stands still, we say. Time flies. A minute can seem an eternity. An hour can go by in a flash. A child’s summer can seem endless. A grandparent’s seasons can go by in a whir. A great athlete may almost see the ball, the racetrack in slow motion. How does that all work?  My guest today says the experience of time is actively created by our minds. This hour On Point: We are off the clock today, out where time is malleable. We’re looking at human perceptions of time.
-- Tom Ashbrook


Claudia Hammond, author of "Time Warped: Unlocking The Mysteries Of Time Perception" and host of "All In The Mind" and "Mind Changers" on the BBC. (@claudiahammond)

Robert Sabbag, author of "Down Around Midnight: A Memoir Of Crash And Survival."

From Tom's Reading List

Scientific American: Time On The Brain: How You Are Always Living In The Past, And Other Quirks Of Perception -- "The bottom line is that memory is essential to constructing scenarios for ourselves in the future. Anecdotal evidence backs this up. Our ability to project forward and to recollect the past both develop around age 5, and people who are good at remembering also report having vivid thoughts about the future."

Smithsonian: Do Humans Have A Biological Stopwatch? -- "When we witness the passage of time, according to noted physicist Paul Davies, we are actually observing how the “later states of the world differ from earlier states that we still remember.” In that sense time is like a movie: We are seeing slightly altered images playing in rapid succession."

io9: How Do You Really Know What Time Is? -- "The scientists who work on the problem of time in the brain sometimes refer to their area of expertise as "time perception" or "clock timing." What they've discovered is that your brain is one of the least accurate time measurement devices you'll ever use. And it's also the most powerful."

Read An Excerpt From Claudia Hammond's "Time Warped"

From the book TIME WARPED by Claudia Hammond. Copyright © 2013 by Claudia Hammond. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

"Your Time Is My Time" (from Chapter One: The Time Illusion)

(Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers)
(Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers)

Each society forms rules about time that its people share and understand. In many parts of the world, including Europe and the US, if a ticket for a play says 7.30 p.m. it is customary to arrive earlier than the specified time, but if a party invitation says 7.30 p.m. you are expected to arrive later. The sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel believes that these social rules provide us with a means of judging time. We learn to expect a play or show to last about two hours and anything longer starts to feel as though it is dragging, whereas the same period of time would feel too short to count as a morning’s work. If we unexpectedly see someone at the wrong time we might not even recognise them. Cultures develop shared ideas of appropriate timings; how long you should stay when invited into someone’s home, even how long you should know a partner before you consider marrying them. Exceptions surprise us. I remember sitting at a lunch in Ghana on a table with six men, two of whom (one local and one from Scotland) surprised the rest of us with their tales of marriage proposals on first dates. (In case you are wondering, both the women they asked said ‘Yes’, and both marriages are still going strong more than two decades later.)

Routines give us a sense of security. They are so important that the mere act of breaking them can disrupt a person’s concept of time and, in extreme cases, even cause terror. At Guantanamo Bay it was standard practice to make the timing of meals, sleep and interrogation unpredictable, defeating a prisoner’s urge to count time and thereby inducing anxiety. Knowing the exact date was of no practical use to Alan Johnston, yet he knew he needed to try to keep track of the calendar. This desire for predictability and control is nothing new. In the early Middle Ages, Benedictine monks decided that predictability was essential to living a good and godly life and would ring bells at fixed intervals and carry out regular services to create a shared routine.

Time dictates the pattern of our lives — when we work, when we eat, even when we choose to celebrate. Just as the Benedictine monks knew when to expect the bells to ring, we each form appropriate temporal schemata for our own lives, which overwrite each other as they go out of date. (As soon as you have a new school timetable, it’s very hard to remember the previous one.) Some of our temporal schemata are controlled by the changing patterns in the seasons, so inevitably winter and summer are particularly salient time-frames. Others are defined by our culture, so if I were to be dropped in my street at a random time and asked to guess the time, the day of the week and the month, then a combination of nature and culture would provide external cues to all three; if there is little traffic, few people walking by and no sign of life in the barber’s, then it must be a Sunday. The temperature and the presence or absence of leaves on the sycamore trees will give a clue as to the time of year, and if the sun is out, its position in the sky would give a rough indication of the time of day.

The cyclical nature of the calendar helps us to organize time in our minds. When you are at school, the academic timetable punctuates the year, a punctuation that can have a lasting emotional impact (from which some teachers never escape). The American psychiatrist John Sharp has noticed that a number of his clients feel worse at the end of the summer — a hangover from years of back-to-school dread. Surprisingly, in the temperate climates in the northern hemisphere suicide rates are higher in the spring, as though deep despair sets in when the promise of spring fails to deliver respite from a spell of misery.

As you’d expect, the effect of the seasons varies depending on where you live, as do attitudes towards time. To investigate this the social psychologist Robert Levine compared the tempo of life in 31 countries around the world using three indicators. First, he measured the average walking speed of random pedestrians walking alone in the morning rush hour along a flat street with wide pavements. How fast did people choose to walk? Window-shoppers were excluded on the basis that they dawdle, and the streets selected were not so congested that the crowds would slow people down. Second, he wanted to compare the efficiency of an everyday task, so he measured the time taken to request a stamp in the local language, to pay for it and to receive the change. Finally, to establish the value placed on time-keeping in each culture, the accuracy of 15 clocks on the walls of banks in each city was checked. Combining these measures gave him an overall score for pace of life. It may not surprise you to learn that the USA, northern Europe and South East Asian countries had the fastest tempos, but Levine’s findings weren’t all so predictable. The efficiency of stamp-selling in Costa Rica brought the country up to thirteenth place in the tempo charts (funnily enough that’s the exact opposite of the experience I had buying a stamp there, but then that’s why we have systematic research on these things, rather than relying on anecdote). Even within the same country the variation can be extreme. On comparing 36 cities in the USA, in this instance combining walking speeds and clock accuracy with the time taken to obtain change in a bank, Boston came out fastest, while the home of showbiz, Los Angeles, was slowest, let down by particularly laid-back bank clerks. Everyone expected New York to come out on top, but in a 90-minute observation period during the early 1990s, the researcher witnessed one pedestrian dealing with a mugger and another with a pickpocket, which might have slowed them down.

At the time of the study the countries with the fastest tempos were also the countries with the strongest economies. This raises the question of which comes first — do people in active economies move faster because time is perceived to be more valuable, or did the fast pace of life lead to economic success? There’s no doubt that energy and speed can help some businesses, but in some cases there is a limit to the extent to which the speed of your work can increase the market for your goods. However fast you make umbrellas, if it never rains where you live, no one will buy them. So the relationship between tempo and gross domestic product is best seen as a two-way interaction. Speed leads to some economic success, but economic success also requires people to move faster and makes a society more reliant on the clock.

This program aired on February 20, 2014. The audio for this program is not available.


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