Saturday, February 16, 2008

Time-warped Experiences

This is interesting:
If the brain sped up when in danger, the researchers theorized, numbers on the perceptual chronometers would appear slow enough to read while volunteers fell. Instead, the scientists found that volunteers could not read the numbers at faster-than-normal speeds.

"We discovered that people are not like Neo in The Matrix, dodging bullets in slow-mo," Eagleman said.

Instead, such time warping seems to be a trick played by one's memory. When a person is scared, a brain area called the amygdala becomes more active, laying down an extra set of memories that go along with those normally taken care of by other parts of the brain. "In this way, frightening events are associated with richer and denser memories," Eagleman explained. "And the more memory you have of an event, the longer you believe it took."

Eagleman added this illusion "is related to the phenomenon that time seems to speed up as you grow older. When you're a child, you lay down rich memories for all your experiences; when you're older, you've seen it all before and lay down fewer memories. Therefore, when a child looks back at the end of a summer, it seems to have lasted forever; adults think it zoomed by."

Never mind physical (un)responsiveness; does your experience last longer when scared? Do you obtain more pleasure and pain by time seeming to you to pass slower? Does this give us additional reason to bring joy to children (and give less priority to aiding the elderly)?

I'm beginning to think that the way to count or measure an experience is not through its objective duration at all, but simply its richness of representational content (which may better reflect felt duration in any case). This may support my claim that multiple experiences matter less the less qualitatively different they are. Merely repeating the same old information over and over again does nothing to enrich the representation, after all.



  1. In response to the 'does this give us more reason to bring joy to children' question: couldn't you say it would give us more reason to bring joy to elderly people and less to children, since, let's say, two jellybeans will be felt as quite significant to the child where as for the same satisfaction to be felt in the old person you'd need, say, 10 butterscotches?

    As long as the child is sufficiently satisfied - which shouldn't take too many jellybeans - we can invest the rest in satisfying old people.

  2. First, the possible flaws in the experiment.

    Not enough fear. Perhaps if some volunteers were dropped in South Auckland on a Friday night and had to walk the streets til dawn. I bet they'd find that the second hand slowed down on their watches.

    Secondly, the Anime effect. Strobing LEDs are not an effective way to observe passage of time.

    Thirdly, observer focus. In times of "do or die" type fear, one does not usually concentrate on a watch. Memory recalls relevant life experiences at the necessary speed, so that they may help to escape the current peril. There's the autonomic reflexes wanting to survey the situation. The brain goes into "record mode." ie. if you survive this one, it's one for the books.

    However, I do agree that the Neo effect is linked to the age thing (wasn't Xmas yesterday?). Each clock beats to the sound of a different drummer.

  3. Richard,

    I think the thrust of this and your previous post, "Consciousness and time", is correct. The experience of duration is represented duration not the duration of the representing.

    Fun to contemplate is an extreme version of such a view whereby a subjectively rich experience concerning multiple events spread over great duration need not objectively have any duration at all.

    For more on this sort of thing, take a peek at my "Mr. Freeze, the Iced-Time Demon".

  4. I wonder about an experience such as playing an intense game of racquetball. This isn't fear, but it consists of the same type of experience the researchers were trying to understand.

    When playing racquetball, subjective experience of time slows to a crawl (the ball may be moving at over 100 mph but it seems like its floating through the air). This is a state that is consistently achieved even by an amateur like myself who only plays every couple weeks, and, I imagine, could be easily entered into by an exceptional player. It really is like "being Neo in the Matrix"; when a ball is flying at your face it sometimes is like dodging a bullet!

    You can't call this "a trick played by one's memory" for two reasons. (1) There is a clear improvement in skill...more really is done better in the same amount of objective time, and (2) once the game is finished one's memory of it is often quite poor (since a typical game is similar to countless others).


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