Monday, January 11, 2010

Where did the time go?

How the brain processes the passing of time is a mystery. There is of course the objective passing of time, but our perception of it is very different. Some days can seem like months, but at other times weeks can slip by rather quickly. The last twenty days, when I traveled to new places (more on that in the coming weeks), seemed like a long time – two months, say – probably because of the number of things I did within a short period. Here’s a recent article that discusses new research on this topic. Excerpt:
In fact, scientists are not sure how the brain tracks time. One theory holds that it has a cluster of cells specialized to count off intervals of time; another that a wide array of neural processes act as an internal clock.

Either way, studies find, this biological pacemaker has a poor grasp of longer intervals. Time does seem to slow to a trickle during an empty afternoon and race when the brain is engrossed in challenging work. Stimulants, including caffeine, tend to make people feel as if time is passing faster; complex jobs, like doing taxes, can seem to drag on longer than they actually do.

And emotional events — a breakup, a promotion, a transformative trip abroad — tend to be perceived as more recent than they actually are, by months or even years.

In short, some psychologists say, the findings support the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s observation that time “persists merely as a consequence of the events taking place in it.”

Now researchers are finding that the reverse may also be true: if very few events come to mind, then the perception of time does not persist; the brain telescopes the interval that has passed. [link]
This year will be tenth that I have been abroad in the United States -- I came to study in the United States in August 2000, a few days before my twenty first birthday. A decade seems to have slipped by quickly, but then if I think of what I have experienced in that time, ten years seems about right.