Burdick (2017). Time Is Contagious: How to control the subjective experience of time.

Burdick, A. (2017, February 2). Time Is Contagious: How to control the subjective experience of time. Nautilus. Retrieved from http://nautil.us/issue/45/power/time-is-contagious

“The sculptures (and the images of them) aren’t moving, but the ballerinas depicted seem to be — and that, it turns out, is enough to alter your perception of time.” (¶ 4)

“In a study published in 2011, Sylvie Droit-Volet, a neuropsychologist at Université Blaise Pascal, in Clermont-Ferrand, France, and three co-authors showed images of the two ballerinas to a group of volunteers. The experiment was what’s known as a bisection task. First, on a computer screen, each subject was shown a neutral image lasting either 0.4 seconds or 1.6 seconds; through repeated showings, the subjects were trained to recognize those two intervals of time, to get a feel for what each is like. Then one or the other ballerina image appeared onscreen for some duration in between those two intervals; after each viewing, the subject pressed a key to indicate whether the duration of the ballerina felt more like the short interval or the long one. The results were consistent: the ballerina en arabesque, the more dynamic of the two figures, seemed to last longer on screen than it actually did.” (¶ 5)

“Typically, duration distortions arise because of the way you perceive certain physical properties of the stimulus. If you observe a light that blinks every tenth of a second and simultaneously hear a series of beeps at a slightly slower rate — every fifth of a second, say — the light will seem to you to blink more slowly than it does, in time with the beep. That’s a function of the way our neurons are wired; many temporal illusions are actually audiovisual illusions. But with Degas there’s no time-altering property — no motion — to be perceived. That property is entirely manufactured by, and in, the viewer — reactivated in your memory, perhaps even reenacted. That simply viewing a Degas can bend time in this way suggests a great deal about how and why our internal clocks work as they do.” (¶ 6)

“… effect of emotion on cognition … Droit-Volet … Consistently, viewers reported that happy faces seemed to last longer than neutral ones, and both angry and fearful faces seemed to last longer still. (The angry faces lasted even longer to 3-year-old children, Droit-Volet found.)” (¶ 7)

“In experimental psychology, ‘arousal’ refers to the degree to which the body is preparing itself to act in some manner. … Arousal is thought to accelerate our internal metronome, causing more ticks than usual to accumulate in a given interval, thereby making emotionally laden images seem to last longer than others of equal duration.” (¶ 8)

“Physiologists and psychologists think of arousal as a primed physical state — not moving but poised to move. When we see movement, even implied movement in a static image, the thinking goes, we enact that movement internally. In a sense, arousal is a measure of your ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.” (¶ 9)

“Studies find that if you make a face as though you’re expecting a shock, the actual shock, when it comes, will feel more painful. Exaggerating your facial expression while viewing pleasant or unpleasant film clips amplifies your heart rate and skin conductivity, the typical measures of physiological arousal. … Arousal signals a bridge to the interior lives of others. If you see a friend feeling angry, you don’t merely infer how she feels: You literally feel what she feels.” (¶ 10)

“In the last few years, Droit-Volet and others have demonstrated that when we embody another person’s action or emotion, we embody the temporal distortions that come with it.” (¶ 11)

“Time is contagious. As we converse with and consider one another, we step in and out of one other’s experience, including the other’s perceptions (or what we imagine to be another’s perception, based on our own experience) of time. Not only does duration bend, we are continuously sharing these small flexions among us like a currency or social glue. ‘The effectiveness of social interaction is determined by our capacity to synchronize our activity with that of the individual with whom we are dealing,’ Droit-Volet writes. ‘In other words, individuals adopt other people’s rhythms and incorporate other people’s time.'” (¶ 13)

“We step out of ourselves and into one another all the time, but we enter these exchanges with inanimate objects too — faces and hands, pictures of faces and hands, and other figurative objects, such as the balletic sculptures of Degas.” (¶ 15)

[“Droit-Volet suggests:” (¶ 17) …]

“It’s not that our clock doesn’t run well; on the contrary, it’s superb at adapting to the ever-changing social and emotional environment that we navigate every day. The time that I perceive in social settings isn’t solely mine, nor is there just one cast to it, which is part of what gives our social interactions their shading. ‘There is thus no unique, homogeneous time but instead multiple experiences of time,’ Droit-Volet writes in one paper. ‘Our temporal distortions directly reflect the way our brain and body adapt to these multiple times.’ She quotes the philosopher Henri Bergson: ‘On doit mettre de côté le temps unique, seuls comptent les temps multiples, ceux de l’expérience.’ We must put aside the idea of a single time, all that counts are the multiple times that make up experience.” (¶ 17)

“Our slightest social exchanges — our glances, our smiles and frowns — gain potency from our ability to synchronize them among ourselves, Droit-Volet notes. … the many temporal distortions we experience are indicators of empathy; the better that I’m able to see myself in your body and your state of mind, and you in mine, the better we can each recognize a threat, an ally, a friend, or someone in need. But empathy is a fairly sophisticated trait, a mark of emotional adulthood; it takes learning and time. As children grow and develop empathy, they gain a better sense of how to navigate the social world. Put differently, it may be that a critical aspect of growing up is learning how to bend our time in step with others.” (¶ 18)

Notable References

  • Burdick, A. (2017). Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation. Simon and Schuster.
  • Droit-Volet, S., & Gil, S. (2009). The time–emotion paradox. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 364(1525), 1943–1953. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2009.0013
  • Nather, F. C., Bueno, J. L. O., Bigand, E., & Droit-Volet, S. (2011). Time Changes with the Embodiment of Another’s Body Posture. PLOS ONE, 6(5), e19818. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0019818


  • Degas, E. (1885). Grande Arabesque [Bronze cast]. Retrieved from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/degas-grande-arabesque-n05917
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