We have all experienced the feeling of time seeming to fly by or slow down in certain situations. Science is playing a role in defining why we feel time flying. In a recent article for Scientific America the concept of time flying by was discussed. So I decided to take a quick second and am glad I did as we have one of the researchers Marc Wittmann for a Candid Connection about the topic of time flying by. Mr. Wittmann thanks for taking to time to write for Candid connections.
Marc Wittmann: It is always a pleasure for me to be able (to be allowed) talk about my research, about what matters to me.
Cliff T.: The concept of feeling that time has flown by is not new to most humans. So why a study on this, what prompted you and your team to look into this phenomenon?
Marc Wittmann: As a Psychologist and Neuroscientist studying the perception of time I am interested in the underlying causes for our experiences. We all have the experiences, but the question is what factors can be discerned in explaining them.
Cliff T.: What was the result and were you surprised by the findings?
Marc Wittmann: We knew from earlier experimental work of Virginie van Wassenhove with whom we collaborated in this study that a visual stimulus (a disc) that is expanding (or looming in size) and thus subjectively moving towards the observer is subjectively overestimated in its duration of appearance as compared to a static disc or a disc that is receding (and this virtually moving away from the observer). We then took this experimental paradigm into a neuroimaging setting using *FMRI. We wanted to find out which brain regions are activated during this temporal illusion. The main result is that cortical midline structures (brain areas of the two hemispheres that face each other) were activated during the looming condition. These structures are typically involved in self-related processes when we think about or feel ourselves. Our conclusion was that these self-related processes are elicited because the disc is virtually moving towards the observer (the self) and, moreover, can be interpreted as a threat.
Cliff T.: In the article the subjective experience of time is mentioned, what is that?
Marc Wittmann: We can measure objective time with a clock. However, without the use of a chronometer we still have a sense of time, a sense of duration and the passage of time. Under certain conditions a given time span (objective time, say, ten minutes) can appear very short or enormously long. That is subjective time. Or take our study: a disc appearing for half a second is perceived as longer than a static disc that appears for half a second.
Cliff T.: Why is this important, what kinds of things can this data be used for?
Marc Wittmann: First of all, it is important to understand how the brain creates our sense of time. Surprisingly enough, in the research community there is no consensus on how and where in the brain time is processed. So that is a strong drive for us to probe different experimental paradigms in order to answer such basic questions. Moreover, one could think of applications of our experimental paradigm in various patient populations in Psychiatry who have disorders related to the experienced self (depression, schizophrenia, anorexia).
Cliff T.: Did you study a specific age group or was this a random study with different people from a variety of age groups?
Marc Wittmann: Typically researchers study young students. This has two reasons. One is pragmatic as it is easy to recruit the students on campus. Secondly, however, it is for scientific reasons to have a group of healthy, young, bright students. The heterogeneity is diminished, that is, we don’t have to control for age effects (cognitive performance can decline with increasing age) and other influences that may have an effect on performance. However, and that is a legitimate critic, for many psychological tests it is important to be cautious not to generalize the findings from young middle class white Anglo-Saxon US Americans (the students you typically find on campus of elite Universities) and US Americans with Asian background (another increasingly dominant student group on campus) to all human beings.
Cliff T.: Was there a difference between men and women?
Marc Wittmann: No.
Cliff T.: It certainly is interesting to delve into the mind and to see how feelings vs surrounding can affect perception. Are you planning on doing more research into time perception and the brain?
Marc Wittmann: My working hypothesis is that the perception of time is based on bodily and emotional processes. When we feel time passing we are sensing the physiological condition of our body (levels of arousal) and our feeling states. I will pursue my research in probing this idea.
Cliff T.: Well I have to say this is a unique way to examen how we perceive and feel time if I can put it that way. I wish all the best in your endeavors on this front I thank you for giving us a peek into the study.
Marc Wittmann: I was happy to share my thoughts and ideas.
Marc Wittmann is one of a team of researchers who studied who time and human subjective experience can produce the effect of what we call time flying by. Mr. Wittmann is associated with the Department of Empirical and Analytical Psychophysics, Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health, Freiburg, Germany, the Department of Psychiatry, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA and Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, San Diego, CA, USA. I reached him at his office in Freiburg, Germany.
*FMRI stands for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging