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Consciousness and the Perception of Time

  1. Sep 9, 2012 #1
    The individual's perception of time has been studied for decades with theories such as the strength model and the inference model by William Friedman. Along with many psychological tests, many neuroscientists have observed the beginnings of an internal clock that exists in humans (which can be read about here -http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/08/02/rspb.2011.1131.full#aff-1).

    I have come to believe that consciousness and time perception are very much intertwined. To start off, I want to define what time really is. I believe time is a tool quantifying change, any change. For example, a second is the change of the clock hand from one point to another. Time creates the tool for measuring change. All of time is based on change - the change of the second hand. Now, if we accept the notion that time is itself a tool for quantifying change, then we can understand the notion of time perception. Time perception is the way we perceive the change of the clock hand. Numerous studies have shown that time perception dulls with age and the older you are, the quicker time goes by (that is, the perception of time). We all have had situations in which a few seconds seem to feel like minutes, especially in high stress/adrenaline situations. We can also experience the slowing of time when we have to wait for something such as an appointment. So how does consciousness tie into all of this? To be conscious of anything means to be aware of it. We are all conscious of change, the movement of a car or the growth of a plant. However, there are different levels of consciousness/awareness. Some people are more conscious of some things than others. For example, I might be watching a very boring movie and lose my consciousness of it and begin to dabble my attention to it and away from it, while someone who is interested in the movie will be fully conscious of every scene that takes place having complete awareness.

    Our level of consciousness dictates our perception of time. Let me elaborate. Let's say I am fully conscious at a given moment standing near a highway. I am aware of everything around me and I am giving my full attention to myself and my surroundings. In this instant I have mentally created an event, an experience. I am experiencing the world in the fullest way I can. As time passes I see cars moving by and horns honking, all of which I am fully aware takes place. Each second that passes by I am having a new experiences. Now if we think of time as continuous/analog and not discrete then in a given minute I would have had numerous experiences of which I was fully aware and can remember due to my full consciousness. If we are constantly fully aware of everything around us we are also constantly aware of the change taking place around us. If someone is not as conscious of his surroundings they will have less experiences (that they can recall) and are less aware of each moment that goes by. This means they will observe less change in there surroundings. Therefore we inherently experience change in a larger degree than someone who doesn't have all of these experiences but only a few due to a lack of higher consciousness. So in conclusion - the more conscious we are, then the more experiences we have [recall] and are more aware of changes taking place. We are more aware of these changes due to our good memory of the numerous experiences we had because of our higher conscious. Because of this better perception of change, we inherently perceive more time due to our great ability to see change. I think this is why many people are so fast at solving problems- they are just more conscious than us and in, let's say 10 seconds, they will have had more "experiences" with the problem than us and can solve the problem quicker because it takes a longer time for us to have had the same amount of experience with the problem to solve it. This theory helps explain why people think so much time has passed when they are waiting for some things. It's because they are more conscious of what is happening and remember more of their experiences giving the illusion they have been waiting for a long time. In retrospect, someone who is having fun is less conscious of every moment and thus has less experiences of change occurring and therefore perceives time to go by quickly. I can list numerous examples- such as Michael Jordan saying how he felt time slow down before he hit his jumper to win the NBA finals. It was because he was more conscious of his surroundings. Or when victims of an accident feel like time slowed down a lot and that they could observe the window cracking before it shattered. It's all because their level of consciousness becomes very high at that moment.
    Anyways, I will be glad to hear what you all have to say, good or bad. Thanks for reading! =)
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 10, 2012 #2
    I'd think that time had something to do with entropy increasing.

    After all: if consciousness was about perceiving the movement of time alone, then a time reversal would be equally valid.
  4. Sep 10, 2012 #3


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    Time is one specific way to organize a set of events: it is a logical way to do so, but it is a very specific and constrained way.

    It's a lot easier to analyze this particular organization and classification than to use some other means and un-surprisingly, it's used quite often.
  5. Sep 11, 2012 #4
    I do agree with you but, the perception of time is only a response to the stimuli being produced ie. change. I would think of it more as a frame. But what would be the length of time for one frame?i disagree with chill_factor you cannot perceive or reply to information that was not processed how on earth would time reversal be possible?
  6. Sep 11, 2012 #5
    There's a neurologist named Llinas who believes the thalamus (or some important part of it) regulates our perception of the passage of time by "beating" at about 40 hz. If that frequency is speeded up or slowed our perception of time passing would be inversely affected.

    If all neurons could be made to fire in the exact same sequence they once fired in the past, you would relive the time of that sequence as if you had travelled backward in time. Apparently this actually happens to some small percentage of people with post-traumatic stress, and also some with seizure disorders, and those who have taken too many psychoactive drugs. It's informally known as a "flashback".
  7. Sep 11, 2012 #6
    Not trying to attack your premise, and I don't know enough about this subject to say its right or wrong. I just thought I'd point out some examples that came up as I read these sentences:

    You can have change without using time to quantify it. The colors across my screen change as I vary distance in any direction along the screen (dcolor/dx - jokingly), while being independent of time. Can you use time to quantify that example of change? There are many examples we could come up with where we can talk about change without any reference to time or space.

    You can also have time pass without change, I believe. In that respect, I would say time has something to do with physics beyond just a tool to quantify change. An interesting thought would be, if nothing changes, is time still passing? You can at least say time is still passing for a closed system, macroscopically. How could you tell as an observer inside the closed system if that implies that you are not changing yourself? Time would appear to be frozen under those conditions to an inside observer (who would not be able to observe it), but not to anyone outside of the closed system.
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2012
  8. Sep 11, 2012 #7
    Did he ever measure a beating of 40 hz in some way?
  9. Sep 11, 2012 #8
    I didn't read this carefully, but it looks like he was measuring the voltage across the neurons and found that it oscillates at around 40Hz. Is that right?
    NIH article.
  10. Sep 11, 2012 #9
    I read about this in a Nova article aimed at the general reader which was non-technical. The article JimmySnyder found looks like it has the whole technical story (which I'd probably have to reread at least 5 more times before I could start to get a handle on where he's getting the 40hz rythm from).
  11. Sep 11, 2012 #10
    What's even more intertwined is length & time, so much so I feel it's best describe as an interval.

    Let me put it different,

    Length is a tool for measuring distance...and so is time. In this continuum truly both are needed for measuring "change" & more importantly for defining each other. You cannot strictly say time equates to change and ignore length. The two are mutually inclusive & "perceived" as a speed. From that alone it's clear to me that conscious perception of time has little to do with what time "really" is, any discussion to reason the two concepts is...unreasonable.

    Perception of length can simply be describe in the same sense you speak of time here.

    Imagine being in deep dark outer space, or even easier to experience, close you eyes. And try and to consciously perceive length.

    Both (time/length) are purely comparatives, whether it be done via measurement or a conscious perception (memory short/long). these two methods of devising comparatives are themselves, not comparable...apples to oranges.

    My "bad" thing to say is (proper) time has no useful place in a discussion about how our conscious perceives time to "pass quickly/slowly", in particular because our concept of time is only proper time.

    Perhaps similar, trying to describe how the physical complication of a handful of elements can consciously perceive. There is no physical connection between the two that can yet be simply described. Certainly the chasm you present between physical & conscious cannot be bridged with a simple one line logic, more focused is time "passes" slowly, or whatever the logic was specifically.

    hmmm is "perception of time" an oxymoron? I think it is.
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2012
  12. Sep 12, 2012 #11
    That is what I was getting at too. I think OP was going in the wrong direction to make such bold and general claims about the relationship between time and the concept of change, to where it sounded like more of a philosophical viewpoint than a scientific one. Time is only one specific piece of the picture, while change is a general concept that relates two or more variables.
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2012
  13. Sep 12, 2012 #12
    Good thinking Salzrah, you beat Augustine,

    But no problems here with that. To further your concious idea, talk with fighter pilots, who somehow seem to be able to slow down time, to be able to do a lot of things, much faster than time would allow normally.

    But that has to do with acute stress and for the first time I can't find a proper scientific reference, but believe me, if there is acute stress from a flying emergency, it looks like adrenaline is really slowing down time. You'd never believe what you can do in half a split second.

    Own experience.
  14. Sep 12, 2012 #13
    I agree. I have been in two car accidents, no one got hurt but both times I look over and the moment before the cars hit the car I was in, the one second of my reaction to see a car about to sidewipe us felt like 2-3 seconds and then it feels like time speeds up to go back to normal. I know actual time doesn't slow down, only the way our brains precieve time.
  15. Sep 12, 2012 #14
    With reference to the above 2 posts: couldn't the way our brains perceive time be related to how fast we can process information? Similar to the sentiment that a millisecond is a lifetime to a computer. Could adrenaline increase the number/performance of neurons used to process what you're experiencing so that they finish processing faster, which makes time feel slower? So if you want to slow down time perception, you just have to think faster.

    This is related I believe (not the adrenaline part, but the processing part)
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2012
  16. Sep 12, 2012 #15
    My take on this is that you are speeding yourself up, "sampling" the external world at a larger number of frames per second, to use an analogy to motion pictures. The time between frames seems normal, so instead of you feeling speeded up, the world around you seems slowed down.

    I've heard many tales of people in emergency situations having this happen to them: the world around them seems to slow so that, simply acting normally in their perception, they can do what needs to be done. To an outside observer they would seem to be acting at lightning fast speed.
  17. Sep 12, 2012 #16
    yea I hear ya, and I hope salzrah isn't put off by this kind of feed back. imo this kind of food for thought is a real hoot.

    Not even the brightest minds can provide "bridges" between physics concepts & consciousness. So really anyone can have a swing at bat, just gotta remember that no one hits the ball outta the park either, not this late in the game.

    To say it different this is an old road many many people have been down before, so any meaningful/useful connection between physics concepts & consciousness won't happen.

    But what may happen is salzrah becomes "satisfied" with their understanding/explanation of "Perception of Time", in which case that's awesome you hit it outta the park, but I don't see it.

    imo a philosophical viewpoint must strictly consider our scientific understandings. And "Time = change" doesn't pass that test. That said I don't know what philosophy is meant to be, but can't imagine it's meant to be made up...such as redefining the concept of time to suit how we consciously perceive time.
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2012
  18. Sep 12, 2012 #17
    That seems to be a problem with time.We like to imagine that time has some kind of constant rate at which it passes. If it is up to the way our individual brains percieve the speed at which it moves then it is purely subjective.There is no constant, only the one's we impose upon it by our time keeping devices and our agreements to abide with there recordings.
  19. Sep 13, 2012 #18
    Someone mentioned entropy, but the thing no one has directly mentioned is information. There is also a difference between perception of time as events are happening and perception of time as events are remembered. I think novel events are perceived as occupying more time in memory. Whether this is true at the time of those events is an extremely difficult question to answer (it gets really difficult when we realize even the concept of "during" is a summation of immediate memories and some sense of current processing!). But events that are unusual, or rather, where I am exposed to stimulus I am unaccustomed to, often seem "longer" in my memory. Furthermore, events from earlier in my life also seem "longer." Perhaps as we age and add memory the percentage of our total memory those later experiences represents shrinks, whereas older memories were informed by the perception of their relative percentage at the time of occurence? The thalamus idea is interesting, but one generalization about neuroscience is that complex emergent phenomenon like time perception rarely have simple explanations. While it could be a factor, the role of memory and the way it's relative time length is evaluated is surely more complex. (I mentioned entropy because I always find the connection between the thermodynamic arrow of time and the creation of information via shannon entropy, which could be seen as its own arrow of time, as information grows in complexity, to be fascinating)
  20. Sep 13, 2012 #19


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    One of the great things about entropy is that if it is calculated in the right conditions for the right kind of distribution, it is a kind of "information invariant" that does not depend on the type of distribution or even what the symbols correspond to either in the PDF to define a grammatical realization, or an actual specific sentence itself (with its own subset of internal grammatical properties).

    This is powerful because it applies to any kind of information which means its gives any scientist a way to look at things in the same way whether they be strands of DNA or what happens when a coffee cup starts to settle after being freshly made with hot water.

    The only thing though that I would add to your comment is to ask you one specific question: do things in different relative capacities get more ordered or less ordered (i.e. less chaotic or more chaotic)?
  21. Sep 13, 2012 #20
    There's a big qualitative difference between the fact that years seem to go by faster and faster as you age and the experience of the world around you being grossly slowed down, as described by Andre. I don't think the latter experience has anything whatever to do with the former, and can't be ascribed to some sort of alteration of memory function. When you watch a slow motion movie the effect has nothing in particular to do with memory, it is dependent on a difference between the speed at which the scene was sampled and the speed at which it's being presented.

    If your brain "samples" the stimuli it's receiving at a greatly accelerated rate but supposes it's a normal rate, the world will seem to have slowed down. The opposite is also true: if it samples the world at a reduced rate, but supposes it's normal, the world will seem speeded up. (I was told this is how the drug "speed" got its name: users often experienced the world around them zipping by like a movie shown too fast.)

    Llinas' proposition of normal consciousness and temporal sense being linked to a "resonant" frequency favored by the thalamus of about 40hz makes perfect sense.

    Oliver Sacks documented some of his post-encephalitic patients in a state of extreme time distortion where they were so slowed relative to normal people that they looked frozen in mid-gesture:

    "I had countless still photos of Miron [a patient who seemed perpetually "frozen"] as he was, silhouetted against the door. I put thirty-six of these, taken in the course of one day, made cinephoto-size reductions, and ran them through the projector at sixteen frames a second. Now, incredibly, I saw that the 'impossible' was true; using what amounted to time-lapse photography, I saw that the succession of 'poses' did, in fact, form a continuous action. He was, indeed, just wiping his nose, but doing so ten thousand times slower than normal."

    or so speeded up he called them "unintelligibly fast"; "too fast for the eye or ear to follow...". It doesn't seem to me that can be explained by a memory problem on the part of the patients.

    Quotes from Awakenings, p.306
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