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Theories About How We Perceive Time That Will Break Your Brain

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What is time? Obviously, the simple answer is the 24-hour daily cycle that’s broken down into minutes and seconds, to which we've all chained ourselves. But even in those minutes and seconds, the human perception of time is different for each specific person. When it comes to theories about time, that’s really the only thing that everyone can agree on. From there, scientists and researchers argue about whether or not time is experienced similarly by the earth’s population, or if time speeds up and slows down for people moving faster or slower. How we perceive time can not only alter our memories, but it can change the way we go about our days.

Is time linear? This is a question that’s plagued scientists and philosophers for centuries, and it’s likely to continue confounding them until time folds in on itself and puts the world's philosophers out of a job. (Unless that’s already happening right now.) There’s something noble about the study of time. No one will ever truly understand the "real" nature of the passage of time; all researchers can hope to do is try to figure out how we understand the way time passes around us.

There are some intriguing concepts on this list, and at least one of them, if not all, will make your head explode.

  • You May Be Able to Control Your Own Perception of Time

    Photo: TriStar Pictures

    BBC broadcaster and psychology writer Claudia Hammond has been exploring the concept that our experience of time is actively created by our own minds and that while there's a concrete "clock time," the distorted version, or "mind time," is something that differs for everyone on the planet.

    Hammond writes:

    We construct the experience of time in our minds, so it follows that we are able to change the elements we find troubling - whether it’s trying to stop the years racing past, or speeding up time when we’re stuck in a queue, trying to live more in the present, or working out how long ago we last saw our old friends. Time can be a friend, but it can also be an enemy. The trick is to harness it, whether at home, at work, or even in social policy, and to work in line with our conception of time.

    The question of how to control the elasticity of time is something that scientists and science fiction writers have struggled with for centuries, and if the answers for how to reconstruct time lie in our own minds, we may be able to learn how to recontextualize every moment of our day in order to stretch it out longer or shrink into a millisecond. 

  • Elementary Time Experiences Help Structure Our Lives

    Photo: TriStar Pictures

    German psychologist and neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel notes that there are five "elementary time experiences," which are fundamental aspects of our experience of time. They include: duration, non-simultaneity, order, past and present, and change. Each of these experiences works with or against one another in order to create our personal experience with time. (Non-simultaneity and order are similar, but with one key difference. When you perceive the order two things happened in, you can judge which one happened first. When you can tell that two things did not happen at the same time, but you can't tell which happened first, that is non-simultaneity.)

  • The Specious Present Is Always Happening

    Photo: Universal Pictures

    Psychologist E.R. Clay first introduced the term "specious present": "the prototype of all conceived times is the specious present, the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible."

    Clay and psychologist William James both talk about the specious present as the moments in time where a person is aware of that moment in time, and how it's the most tangible version of time. Or as James puts it: "We are constantly aware of a certain duration - the specious present - varying from a few seconds to probably not more than a minute, and this duration (with its content perceived as having one part earlier and another part later) is the original intuition of time."

    (Somewhat) simply put, the specious present is the feeling of "presentness" you feel at a given moment of time that you perceive as being neither the past nor the future, but right now.

  • Our Perception of Time Depends on Being Able to Put Events in Order

    Photo: Orion Pictures

    Finding precedence amongst events that occurred in our past (that is, putting them in chronological order) seems like an easily accomplishable task, but some scientists argue that perception of precedence is just a sensation caused by instances of precedence, "just as a sensation of red is caused by instances of redness." 

    Hugh Mellor doubts these claims, arguing if this were actually true, then we "could not distinguish between x being earlier than y, and x being later than y, for whenever there is an instance of one relation, there is also an instance of the other. But plainly we are able to distinguish the two cases, so it cannot simply be a matter of perceiving a relation." 

    Mellor believes that what we're actually experiencing is the perception of movement: the perceived order of different positions that aren't necessarily the same as the actual temporal order of those positions. Basically, if you move your hand in front of your face from the left to the right, then you remember your hand being in those positions, and that image affects your current perception.

    However, this assumes that we aren't thinking through the logic of things - we simply have a series of images in mind:

    On Mellor's model, the mechanism by which time-order is perceived is sensitive to the time at which perceptions occur, but indifferent to their content (what the perceptions are of). Daniel Dennett (1991) proposes a different model, on which the process is time-independent, but content-sensitive. For example, the brain may infer the temporal order of events by seeing which sequence makes sense of the causal order of those events. 

    That is, if we see a whole egg, and later a broken egg shell, we assume the whole egg came first not only because of the order of our perceptions, but also because logic (and past experiences with eggs) tells us that makes a lot more sense than the other way around.