Thursday, January 20, 2005

Time Perception

Chris of the "Mixing Memory" blog ( is a cognitive scientist and he occasionally writes about time perception (his other stuff is very cool, too). Here are short snippets from three of his best, longest and most detailed posts on this topic:

Temporal Attitudes

In English, we have two primary ways of speaking about time
in terms of space. Either we are moving forward through time (e.g., "We're
coming up on midterms") or time is moving past us (e.g., "The deadline is fast
approaching"). These to ways of speaking about time in spatial terms imply
different directions. In the first, things are moving forward from us; in the
second, things are moving from our front to our back. The ambiguous sentence
Boroditsky uses in her studies is, "Next Wednesday's meeting has been moved
forward two days." Ordinarily, about half of the people who read this interpret
it as meaning that the meeting has been moved to Monday, while the other have
read it as meaning the meeting has been moved to Friday.
Another interesting finding people whose native language conceptualizes time with a different directionality (e.g., vertical instead of horizontal) interpret temporal statements differently. When primed with pictures depicting a directionality consistent with their native language's description of time, people are faster to verify
the truth of certain statements about temporal relations (e.g., April comes after March). This implies that our time concepts are heavily influenced by the way our languages relate time and space conceptually.

Time Perception I (neurology)

Like reasoning, there is a whole hell of a lot of research
on time perception, and I've tossed around several ideas about how to approach
the topic in a blog post. There are so many issues, and almost all of them are
very interesting, that I am still not exactly sure what I want to do. More than
likely, it's going to take a series of posts, but I've got to start somewhere,
so I'll start with the neuroscience. In a subsequent post, I'll talk about
different factors that affect the cognitive perception of time. God only knows
what comes after that.The neuroscience of time perception has recently become a
hot area of study. So far, several brain regions have been found to be involved
in different aspects of time perception. The most widely studied are the
cerebellum and the basal ganglia, but other non-cortical regions, such as the
inferior parietal lobes, and cortical regions such as the inferior prefontal
cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate gyrus, and the
supplementary motor area also play roles. I'll take each of these regions in
order, and in no particular order.

Time Perception II: Cognitive Factors

There are five main types of cognitive and affective
factors that influence time perception: attention, modality, arousal, affective
valence, and linguistic factors. I'm going to go through each factor and
describe the ways in which they affect time perception, and some of the research
demonstrating these effects, starting with
Humans are very accurate
measurers of time at relatively short intervals (from milliseconds to minutes),
with both the mean perceived time and the standard(the function of this
relationship has a slope near 1 deviation of duration judgements varying
linearly with elapsed time. This second property (the linear relationship
between duration and the standard deviation of duration judgements) indicates
that time perception obeys Weber's Law, such that the absolute sensitivity of
time judgements is independent of the length of the actual duration. Factors (in
addition to those discussed below) that affect duration judgements include: the
order in which stimuli are perceived (time-order errors), whether the interval
is filled or empty (filled intervals are perceived as longer than empty ones),
and the length of time between the event and the duration judgement (durations
are remembered as having been longer if there is a delay in

We've all had the
experience of time flying when we are doing something interesting, or time
dragging on when we are bored. For some time, psychologists have theorized that
this is due to the sharing of attentional resources between the processing of
the stimuli and the processing of temporal information. When a stimulus attracts
a significant amount of attention, there is less attention available to process
time. This results in a shortening of perceived duration judgements. When more
attention can be given to temporal information, time judgements tend to be more
accurate. For instance, when participants were presented with interesting
stories in a prospective judement task, they judged them to be shorter than
stories of the same length that were less interesting.

Categories: Clock Tutorials


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