Time in Mind

AS A SPECIES, WE ARE FASCINATED BY TIME. WE’VE BEEN MEASURING IT FOR SOME 4,000 YEARS AND CELEBRATING ITS PASSAGE FOR FAR LONGER.

We synchronize our daily activities using any number of diverse devices — ranging from the mechanical to the subatomic — and yet we rarely stop to think how it is that without such devices we still do a pretty good job of keeping time, knowing how long it will take to get back from the shops, or overtaking the car in front before hitting the oncoming traffic.

How do we do this? And why is it that time sometimes appears to slow down, or speed up? These are not the idle questions of scientists with too much of the stuff on their hands. When a sky-diver takes that first jump, and has to count the seconds before pulling the rip-cord, does he count at the same speed as he did when trained to count while on the ground?

When pilots estimate the time to hit the ground as they land the planes in which you travel, are their estimates as accurate as when, during training, they were more safely sitting behind the controls of a simulator? And if not, why not? If you are that sky-diver, or are sitting in that plane, you’d hope that someone, at least, knows the answer to these questions.

Psychologists and neuroscientists attempt to answer exactly such questions. We live with the objective measures of time all around us — from watches and phones to TVs, ovens, and microwaves. Yet despite its objective and measurable manifestation, time is subjective — right now, time may be going by faster for you than it is for me.

Hence the role for psychologists in understanding how the mind «does» time. Even economists and decision-makers care about subjective time: A decision that might take only moments to make is easily and accurately made when we don’t feel rushed, but is harder to make when we feel under time pressure (regardless of how much time we actually have). The same amount of time in one context might seem like an eternity, but in another, a moment that was all too brief. Psychologists care about these things, and how they come about: How, why, and when our mental clocks tick at different rates, and what the consequences of changing that rate are for everyday behaviours. And neuroscientists care about which parts of the brain control the mental clock, and whether there may not in fact exist multiple clocks within a single brain all ticking at different rates. Even anthropologists care about time, with different cultures appearing to think about time in different ways (and describing time in their respective languages in quite different ways to how we might describe it in English).

The biggest impediment, however, to our understanding of mental time is time itself. The human brain changes in thousands of subtle ways, thousands of times a second. As scientists, we measure it, probe it, time it. If we could just slow down time long enough to watch the brain change, moment-by-moment, we might better understand how different parts of the brain work in synchrony to create our own personal experience of time. But we cannot open up a brain like we can a watch, and probe how each part enables all the others to function. The methods we use are not those of a watchmaker (readers familiar with Zachary Quinto’s character Sylar from the TV series Heroes will be disappointed).

How we instead study the mind’s ability to keep time, and even conceive of time, is something that we shall consider across a series of occasional articles that will appear in future issues of this magazine and in the Christopher Ward blog. Scientists working on the psychology and neuroscience of time will contribute short articles describing their and others’ research on psychological time, and how it changes from moment to moment and person to person.

We’ll find out how our mental conception of time is not that different from our mental conception of space — time and space are inextricably bound, both in Einstein’s theory of special relativity, and in our minds. We’ll discover that our ability to estimate elapsed time relies on a mental chronograph this is unlike any chronograph you can buy in a shop. We’ll find out why we think that something we’re planning on doing tomorrow will take longer than if we were planning the same thing next month instead. And we’ll learn about how different parts of the brain serve different chronometric functions, from estimating time to travelling back in time. We might even learn a little about skydiving, decision making, and culture. If nothing else, we’ll learn a little more about the most versatile clock you’ll ever experience but never be able to buy: the one inside your head.

Gerry Altmann is Professor of Psychology at the University of York in the UK, Editor-in-Chief of the academic journal Cognition, and prize-winning author of The Ascent of Babel, an accessible introduction to how the brain does language. In his spare time,

Gerry is a watch nerd.

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