Psychology: Time piece

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Hedderik van Rijn weighs up an erudite but idiosyncratic survey of how we perceive life passing.

Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time

Marc Wittmann (translated by Erik Butler) MIT Press: 2016. ISBN: 9780262034029

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Perceived and measured time may not always match.

The sense of time passing plays a pivotal part in decision-making — from choosing chicken or pasta on a long-haul flight to deciding whether to propose marriage to a long-term partner. Although the temporal resolution in these scenarios differs by orders of magnitude, Felt Time by psychologist Marc Wittmann (first published in German as Gefühlte Zeit; C. H. Beck, 2014) argues that the experiences are closely related.

Wittmann marshals a wealth of behavioural and neuroscience results, as well as references to the arts, literature and philosophy, to argue that how we subjectively experience time determines whether we are able to seize the day and live happy and fulfilled lives, or struggle to finish our daily chores. He urges us to strive to slow down subjective time and to live in the here and now. Inspired by the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, his suggestion for cultivating presence is to abstain from busywork — to get rid of the “unconditional work ethic” that drives us back to our desks on sunny Sunday afternoons to finish yet another grant proposal instead of relaxing. Another, more pragmatic, proposal for slowing down subjective time is 'mindfulness'. By using meditation techniques such as a focus on breathing, Wittmann argues, we become more aware of our inner body states, more “mentally present”; this slows down our subjective time, resulting in more fulfilling in-the-moment experiences.

I am not convinced that mindfulness can help in all contexts discussed in Felt Time, because Wittmann defines time very loosely. He links the perception of seconds with perception over months or years. He elides the effects of circadian rhythm and chronotype (whether someone is a 'morning' or 'evening' person), youthful impatience, the observation that years seem to pass faster as we age, and the prospect of dying — the ultimate time limit. Although all of these are associated with our perception of life passing, each has a distinct aetiology: circadian rhythms are driven by well-known biological circuits, for example. But the change in subjective time with age is attributed to experiencing fewer unfamiliar (and therefore memorable) events, something that could be more easily influenced than circadian rhythms.

“Science should explore how perceived time affects everyday activities, as well as how everyday activities influence our perception of time.”

I do, however, strongly agree with Wittmann's implicit arguments for a more inclusive study of time. Beyond simple laboratory studies of temporal cognition tasks, Wittmann makes the case that science should explore how perceived time affects everyday activities, as well as how everyday activities influence our perception of time. But rather than conducting lab work in which participants must estimate the duration of intervals marked with clear start and end points, we should consider timing as a continuative process: every task we do is timed, irrespective of whether we know at the start that time might become important.

Felt Time is divided into two parts. In the first, Wittmann introduces the important role of time in many aspects of everyday life, from speech perception and production to experiencing and memorizing what he terms the “best moments of life”. Here he presents an elegant selection of the often confusing, sometimes contradictory academic literature, with a clear emphasis on his own work and that of collaborators and mentors such as functional neuroanatomist Bud Craig and psychologist and neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel.

In the last two chapters, Wittmann advances a theory of how temporal perception is directly linked to the self-consciousness of bodily states. His idea is grounded in the observation that during timing tasks, the brain's insular cortex (a part of the cerebral cortex associated with the integration of physiological input such as heartbeat) is active. Wittmann suggests that the heart might act as an 'internal clock', because accuracy in counting heartbeats correlates with how accurately someone can estimate the duration of an interval. Although there are correlational studies that link sensing heartbeat with timing accuracy, Wittmann unfortunately ignores prominent alternative proposals for the brain mechanisms that underlie the internal clock. For example, there is ample evidence that corticostriatal circuits — neural pathways that link the basal ganglia with the neocortex — are key to the accurate timing of duration in the range of seconds to minutes. Such work is better covered in other books or special journal issues on the neurobiology of timing (for example, H. Merchant and V. de Lafuente (eds) Neurobiology of Interval Timing (Springer, 2014) and R. B. Ivry and W. H. Meck Curr. Op. Behav. Sci. 8; 2016) — but these are aimed at experts.

Although idiosyncratic at times, Felt Time eloquently sketches out the importance of time, both in the darkness of the lab and in the full light of everyday behaviour.

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