Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Time Flies When You're Having Fun/Fear/Fever

Last year I shared how the amount that time flies can make it seem like we are having more fun. Maybe that's because the things that make us happy are usually the things that speed up our internal clock:
Your internal clock is just like that digital watch in some ways. It measures time in what scientists call pulses. Those pulses are accumulated, then stored in your memory as a time interval. Now, here's where things get weird. Your biological clock can be sped up or slowed down anything from drugs to the way you pay attention. If it takes you 60 seconds to cross the street, your internal clock might register that as 50 pulses if you're feeling sleepy. But it might last 100 pulses if you've just drunk an espresso.
So if you're having a good time, just sit back relax (slow your heartbeat) and enjoy it. However, a faster internal clock can also make it seem like time slowed down. In an experiment neuroscientist David Eagleman dropped participants from a SCAD free fall tower. Each person was asked to look at a chronometer when they fell and when they landed and then afterward use a stopwatch to go back over the fall and estimate the feeling of length. Here are the results and explanation:
Eagleman’s subjects overestimate the length of their fall by thirty-six per cent. To his surprise, though, the speed of their perception doesn’t change as they drop: no matter how hard they stare at the chronometer, they can’t read the numbers. “In some sense, that’s more interesting than what we thought was going on,” Eagleman told me. “It suggests that time and memory are so tightly intertwined that they may be impossible to tease apart.”

One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, he explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. “This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.
When your internal clock speeds up, but you are still taking in the same amount of information, sometimes it can actually feel like time slowed down. A pretty good argument to have new experiences later in life (to slow time down). Interestingly enough, being sick can have a similar outcome:
Eagleman traces his research back to psychophysicists in Germany in the late eighteen-hundreds, but his true forefather may be the American physiologist Hudson Hoagland. In the early nineteen-thirties, Hoagland proposed one of the first models for how the brain keeps time, based partly on his wife’s behavior when she had the flu. She complained that he’d been away from her bedside too long, he later recalled, when he’d been gone only a short while. So Hoagland proposed an experiment: she would count off sixty seconds while he timed her with his watch. It’s not hard to imagine her annoyance at this suggestion, or his smugness afterward: when her minute was up, his clock showed thirty-seven seconds. Hoagland went on to repeat the experiment again and again, presumably over his wife’s delirious objections (her fever rose above a hundred and three). The result was one of the classic graphs of time-perception literature: the higher his wife’s temperature, Hoagland found, the shorter her time estimate. Like a racing engine, her mental clock went faster the hotter it got.
Yesterday I tried to figure out whether we should let people know the length of time allotted for good and bad tasks. I think it might depend on what that task does to our internal clock.

1 comment:

  1. Hey,
    I like your post. Here's an infographic I just finished on what internal clocks enable us to do/what happens when they aren't working. Feel free to share it with your site's viewers.




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