When in the world – our strange perception of time

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When in the World is all about the odd temporal dislocation that urban legends can produce when they are actually stories from a bygone era updated and told anew.

While this episode discusses the odd eerie effect caused by our inability to situate these stories in a particular time and place, our more general perception of time is key to our experience and understanding of the world around us as a whole. And let me just state for the record, time is weird.

Physical time, as in the effect that time has on the world around us and the passage of that time in a way that is quantifiable, is generally accepted as objective. But our perception of time, that is the way we experience time, is much more subjective. And if you don’t believe me, just take a look at some of the temporal illusions we experience on a daily basis.

Chronostasis, or the stopped clock illusion, is best exemplified by the illusion created when one first glances at an analogue clock and the second hand will appear to freeze momentarily. Thus creating the illusion that this second is longer than subsequent seconds. The actual brain science behind this involves saccadic masking. This is the process in which our brain blocks retinal images where the image is being blurred through movement. This means that instead of showing us blurred images, our brains simply cuts off the image at the last stable image and does not show us a new one until our vision has stabilised. In the case of an analogue clock, the second hand when we first look at it will blur with the sudden movement of our eyes, so the brain simply gives us the first image of the second hand frozen until it can feed us with a more stable image. So the stopped clock is an illusion – yes. But because it creates a perception that the second is longer, we experience that second as longer.

The ‘oddball effect’ is simply an exaggerated version of chronostasis. This occurs when we experience something new or unusual and time will appear to slow down. A good example of this is when we are driving or walking somewhere for the first time. The journey there will always seem longer than the journey back. This is because the journey in the first instance is new to us and demands increased focus and attention. But the same thing happens if we are under threat or we are needed in an emergency. Theorists posit that this gives us the advantage of being able to think more clearly and assess all our options. But the fact remains, we really do experience this time slower.

I repeat, time is weird.

Verity ClaytonComment