5 Intriguing Mysteries of Time Perception Explained

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time perception mysteries

What do you think about time perception? Does time exist in its own right, or is it just in our minds?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed that time might not, after all, stand outside human perception as part of the external universe, but that it could possibly be, along with space, a product of the mind itself.

1. What is time?

Time appears to be a condition of change and motion.

But it’s not known exactly what time is: whether it’s built into the structure of the universe, existing outside of human perception; or whether it’s simply a structure in the human mind, along with space, with which human beings put events into order and hold them in relation to each other.

Atomic clocks are the most accurate measure of time we have. They set the standard time in our age. Atomic clocks work by using an electronic oscillator at microwave frequency, in the same way as a grandfather clock with a pendulum, but at the atomic level.

Researchers have suggested that the brain contains a primitive kind of clock, consisting of a pacemaker and an accumulator. There’s an internal pulsation that’s measured by accumulation of pulses.

2. Why does time appear to go faster as we age?

Can it be possible that time, shared by both adults and children simultaneously, can move faster for the one age group than for the other? So how come time seems to go faster the older you get?

Again, this raises the question of whether time only exists in the perception, or if it’s something that exists outside of it. But, experiments have clearly shown that people in emotionally unpleasant situations, for example, perceive time as dragging, whereas people in the same situation having pleasurable experience, perceive time as going by quickly. It seems that factors such as physical or emotional comfort could affect how we perceive time.

Time is also marked by events and actions that can assign a particular time frame to memory. Attentiveness to the passage of time by its connection to events and activities could affect our perception of how quickly time passes. Psychologist William James suggested that time seems to speed up as we age because it is accompanied by progressively fewer memorable events.

3. Why do psychedelic drugs alter time perception?

Mind-altering substances can give us some insight into how altered states of perception due to activity in the brain can affect time perception. People taking psychedelic drugs experience time as altered.

An experiment, using 20 volunteers under the influence of LSD, and monitoring the brain’s activity with brain scans, showed that LSD has an observable effect on the region of the brain associated with the past. LSD alters time perception by suppressing that part of our brain which brings up memories of the past. People taking LSD, therefore, live much more in the present and future than in the past.

4. Why do acute experiences alter our perception of time?

When we’re extremely afraid and time seems to slow down, is there any reason for this? Perhaps, our perception of time could be slowing down to help us act in some way. On the other hand, it could merely be the fact that we’re in an unpleasant situation that makes each moment unbearable.

We already saw above that studies had demonstrated that people in emotionally uncomfortable situations perceive time as going by more slowly than those who are having a pleasant time. It seems that time slows down when we are uncomfortable since suffering makes us more sharply attentive to every feeling and event.

5. How do different emotions affect time perception?

It’s not simply that negative emotions make time slow down, or positive emotions make time speed up. Consider stress, it’s a negative emotion that, however, makes our time perception speed up.

According to researchers, humans have no actual sensory instrument for receiving information about time. They agree, however, that the brain is inherently capable of processing time. They’ve posited the idea of an internal body clock, which works, as we saw above, by means of measuring pulsation and accumulation of pulses. There are two mechanisms at work in affecting the perception of time according to this body clock. There is the attention mechanism and the arousal mechanism.

In the case of the attention mechanism, when attention is taken off the processing of time, time seems to go quicker. In the arousal mechanism, they believe that the physiological pacemaker speeds up, in line with the physiological activation of the organism. More pulses are counted, making time seem to speed up in this case as well.

It seems that time perception is dependent on a number of factors, psychological and external. In the end, we cannot know which is more integral to time: the mind or the external world.

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Caroline Hindle

Caroline Hindle is a freelance writer, editor, and translator living in Athens, Greece. She has an MA in Ancient World Studies, but has a wide spectrum of interests, including philosophy, history, science, literature, politics, morality, and popular culture.




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