Felt Time | Marc Wittmann

Summary of: Felt Time: The Science of How We Experience Time
By: Marc Wittmann


Dive into the fascinating world of time perception with ‘Felt Time: The Science of How We Experience Time’ by Marc Wittmann. This book explores the complex psychological and physiological mechanisms that govern our experience of time. Learn about the psychological clock theory by Oxford psychologist Michel Treisman, which suggests that our brains determine the passage of time through counting pulses. Discover the intriguing role of our circadian rhythm, a physiological clock that impacts our cognitive performance and adapts to daily light cycles. This book also sheds light on how our short-term memory connects present moments into long-term memories, and the enigmatic relationship between subjective and objective time perception.

Unraveling Our Internal Clocks

Long before the invention of clocks, humans tracked time through psychological and physiological mechanisms. Oxford psychologist Michel Treisman introduced the concept of a psychological clock in the 1960s, stating that our brains have a pacemaker emitting pulses at regular intervals. These pulses are collected by a mental counter, which determines the passage of time based on the number of detected pulses. This counter works best when we pay attention to time; when distracted, time appears to pass more quickly. Another theory suggests that we assess the duration of events based on the intellectual and emotional effort they require, explaining why new experiences often seem longer. Additionally, we possess a physiological clock called the circadian rhythm that tracks daily light cycles, affecting cognitive performance and other bodily functions. This rhythm operates even without visible sunlight, as demonstrated by psychologist Jurgen Aschoff’s experiments in the 1960s, where volunteers still followed a circadian rhythm despite being in a room without natural light.

Mastering Delayed Gratification

When faced with the choice of enjoying something now or waiting for a more significant reward in the future, humans possess the ability to delay gratification. While a unique trait among animals, the level of willing to delay gratification varies among individuals based on different circumstances. Studies demonstrate that those who can practice self-control and experience greater success in life. Cultivating this skill is essential for personal and professional growth.

Delaying gratification is a powerful skill that sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. While pigeons and chickens may only hold out for a few seconds, and great apes including chimpanzees can exhibit patience for several minutes, humans are capable of forgoing immediate satisfaction for potentially greater rewards in the future.

Consider this common scenario: you decide to skip a social event to train for an upcoming marathon, willingly trading present pleasure for future success. Many aspects of our lives involve such calculations, yet our willingness to delay gratification depends on the specific situation and the perceived benefits.

This capacity for self-control can be examined through financial dilemmas. Research highlights that most people would choose to receive $45 today instead of $50 next week, effectively paying a $5 premium for immediate access to the funds. However, the propensity to wait increases proportionally with the anticipated rewards.

The ability to delay gratification holds significant implications for success in life. Extended self-control in adults and children correlates with improved personal and professional achievements. In a 1988 study conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel, 500 children aged four to five were asked to choose between eating one marshmallow immediately or waiting 15 minutes for a second one. Those who could wait exhibited higher academic test scores and attained better career paths than their more impulsive peers.

Evidently, mastering the art of delayed gratification is a vital component of human success and an essential skill to nurture.

The Brain’s Three-Second Rule

The concept of time and memory is deeply rooted in our brain’s capacity to process “units of now” in intervals of two to three seconds. Renowned psychologist Ernst Poppel found that our brains prefer these short, rhythmic verses for both visual and auditory experiences. Our short-term memory serves as the bridge connecting these brief moments, creating a coherent song or a story. However, short-term memory only lasts a few minutes before being stored into long-term memory, where they are organized into a broader idea.

Perception of Time: Objective vs Subjective

Everyone perceives time differently – we each seem to move through life at our own pace. Experiments have shown considerable differences in the threshold at which people can discern the order of events. However, the context does not appear to influence the objective observation of time. Our subjective experience of time, such as feeling like time slows down during an accident, doesn’t match objective measurements. This highlights the fascinating interplay between our individual perceptions and objective reality of time.

In the 1960s, cognitive psychologists Ira Hirsch and Carl Sherrick conducted a study examining how individuals perceive time. They played two distinct notes in quick succession and asked participants which one came first. As the time gap between the notes narrowed, there was a limit to how accurately people could discern the order of the events. Surprisingly, this limit varied noticeably from person to person.

This simple yet compelling experiment indicates that we each experience time at our own distinct pace. However, contrary to what we might expect, the objective observation of time does not depend on the context. While subjectively, we feel the passage of time depends on the situation, such as in the case of a car crash where events feel slowed down, objective measurements don’t agree with this.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman put the discrepancy between subjective and objective perceptions of time to the test. He measured how quickly participants could process visual information while falling from a 31-meter-high tower in an amusement park. If time objectively slowed down during the fall, subjects’ performance would improve compared to when tested in a laboratory. However, there were no significant differences between the two settings. Nonetheless, participants reported feeling time slow down during the fall.

This fascinating relationship is a reminder that our perception of time is a complex interaction between our minds and the world around us. Our subjective experiences of time may not always align with objective measurements, yet they undoubtedly play a critical role in shaping our individual lives.

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