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Authors: Claudia Hammond

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BOOK: Time Warped
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If ADHD is a disorder of time perception, could you somehow change a child’s relationship with time and in turn reduce the symptoms of ADHD? At the moment therapeutic intervention tends to focus on inhibition and helping children to think before they act, but Katya Rubia plans to develop a form of cognitive behavioural therapy where children are taught how to wait and how to delay. This is something I’ll come back to in Chapter Five. The difficulty is this: if a child experiences the passage of time in an unusual way, teaching them to wait won’t eliminate the fundamental problem. They might learn to tolerate the aching slowness of time, but if a five-minute delay feels like
an hour, then it always will. They might be able to learn not to behave impatiently, but to them wouldn’t it still feel like an agony of time? Here Katya is optimistic that the brain’s plasticity is such that if she can teach them to behave differently, then this could eventually have an impact on the brain and on time perception itself. She has already demonstrated that Ritalin, the drug commonly used to treat the symptoms of ADHD, does improve time perception and the estimation of milliseconds. Perhaps learning to wait would give children the opportunity to learn to judge a time interval more accurately. As Katya told me, ‘If you never wait, you probably don’t learn to estimate a time interval properly.’

To sum up: so far it is clear that ADHD, extreme fear, rejection, boredom and depression can all lead to the sensation that time is slowing down. The next situation which can dilate time is altogether more surprising.

DIVING FOR TIME

There were fourteen scuba divers in all – six amateurs and eight Royal Engineers. It was a hot August day in Famagusta Bay in Cyprus in the mid-1960s. The resort was fast becoming the place to be seen. New hotels were appearing; ready to accommodate the rich and famous on holiday. Archaeological excavations in the long arc of sand were slowly revealing a perfect oblong of pillars outlining the site where an old gymnasium stood, until, according to legend, in the fourth century BC the king burned down his Palace of Salamis rather than submit to the Egyptians.
But the 14 scuba divers were not here to admire the archaeological sites, nor even the grouper fish and Spanish lobsters under the water. They were here to take part in a study on time. At the start of the experiment, each diver sat with a thermometer in his mouth while his pulse was taken. Then, without counting, he had to guess when a minute had elapsed. Next a Royal Engineer handed him a one-ounce charge of gun cotton and lit the fuse. The diver’s job was to take the fuse, swim down 15 feet to place it on one of the many shipwrecks submerged beneath the waters of Famagusta Bay and then return to the surface to wait for the explosion. Then the initial routine of sitting on the deck while his pulse and temperature were taken and estimating the passing of a minute was repeated. But here was the catch. The divers were instructed that if the charge did not explode within a few minutes they were to dive back down to the shipwreck to retrieve the gun cotton. These explosions were genuine, so not surprisingly this injected an element of anxiety into the experiment. It was conducted by Alan Baddeley, who was later to become one of Britain’s most eminent researchers in the field of memory. He was in Cyprus to follow up an experiment he had conducted one March day in the cold waters off the coast of Wales. He had discovered (no surprises here) that the divers were colder after their dive, and that the colder they were, the longer they estimated one minute to be. In other words for them time felt as though it were going fast (if this sounds strange to you, remember that if time had felt slow, they would have
under
estimated the minute passing, feeling that after 40 seconds it must surely
be over). However it was possible that instead of time speeding up
after
the dive, their anxiety might have slowed time down
before
the dive and that this might be the explanation for the discrepancy in the before and after timings. So he relocated his experiment to the warm waters off Cyprus and devised a task where the divers’ body temperatures would barely change, but which was extra stressful, due to the inclusion of the explosions. In the experiment in Cyprus there was hardly any difference in the speed of their counting, before and after the dive, supporting his original idea that it was temperature that was changing the perception of time in the Welsh divers, not anxiety.
16

Three decades earlier the wife of an American psychologist called Hudson Hoagland was lying in bed with flu. Although her husband was caring for her kindly, she complained that whenever she needed him he seemed to be absent from the room for long periods. In reality he was only away from her for a few minutes at a time. Wondering whether her experience of time was askew, he took the opportunity to conduct an experiment on time perception and body temperature. Her fever was causing extreme fluctuations in her body temperature so every time the thermometer gave a new reading, he asked her to count the seconds passing until she reached one minute, all the while monitoring her accuracy with a stopwatch. And just to be on the safe side, at each temperature he persuaded her to perform the counting task five more times, meaning that in the space of 48 hours his ailing wife took part in 30 trials for the experiment.
17

He discovered that not only was she a very patient patient, agreeing to his constant requests for her to spend a minute counting without knowing why, but that the higher her temperature, the sooner she thought a minute had passed. When her temperature reached 103 degrees, time had slowed to the extent that she thought a whole minute had passed after just 34 seconds.

Hoagland must have possessed strong powers of persuasion because for his next experiment he convinced a student to submit to diathermy – that is for his body to be wrapped up tightly and then artificially raised to 38.8 degrees using an electric current. Bearing in mind that a body temperature of 40 degrees would be considered a potentially life-threatening emergency, the student was unsurprisingly rather anxious, which Hoagland remarked rendered his initial time estimations somewhat erratic. Once the student had managed to relax, his perceptions of time were altered in the same way they were for Hoagland’s wife. As his temperature rose, time decelerated. Hoagland tested just two people, but Baddeley’s later work with the divers confirmed that body temperature can warp our experience of time.

FIVE TIMES A DAY FOR
45
YEARS

The discovery of the next factor that can slow down time required great dedication, something this field of study does seem to engender. Robert B. Sothern is a biologist who has been taking a series of measurements every single day since 1967. Five times a day he estimates the passage of a minute
without looking at a clock; measures his blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate; tests his eye-hand co-ordination and rates his mood and vigour. For 19 years he even co-opted his parents to help with the task and for several decades he also recorded data on the strength of his grip and the volume of his urine. It all began after he volunteered to travel from the United States to Germany to take part in an experiment where he lived underground for three weeks without any means of keeping time. This experience gave him the idea of investigating how his rhythms changed as he aged, using that most willing of participants – himself. Where else could you find a subject so motivated and conscientious that they let neither holiday nor illness disrupt the research process? Robert has now conducted more than 72,000 measurement sessions and tells me he has no plans to stop.

Robert’s main interest is in how the timing of medical treatment might affect its efficacy. Does it work better in the morning or the evening or on a particular day of the month? It’s a field that he acknowledges is regarded with scepticism by the medical community and, seeing the sparsity of the evidence, it’s likely to remain so. But what interests me is a sideline of this research. His decades of measurements of time-estimation reveal another factor which slows down time – youth. During his period of isolation in Germany his time estimations showed that for him time was decelerating. But as he left his twenties the opposite happened and time appeared to be gradually speeding up.
18
This is a common sensation as people get older, and one that I’ll explore later in the book.

HOW TO MAKE TIME STAND STILL

So emotions, fear, age, isolation, body temperature and rejection can all affect our perception of the speed of time, as does concentration, or ‘attention’ as it tends to be referred to in the psychological literature. If you happen to be in a room that has a clock with a second hand that ticks rather than sweeping round smoothly in one motion, glance up at the clock face and see what happens. If by chance you catch it at the right moment the second hand will appear stationary for longer than it should. You wonder whether the clock has stopped, only for it to start moving again a moment later. This is a demonstration of chronostasis: the illusion that time stands still. If it doesn’t work the first time, glance up a few more times and eventually it will. The traditional explanation for this illusion is that in order to present us with a consistent image of the world that doesn’t blur every time we shift our gaze across the room, our brains momentarily suppress our vision whenever we move our eyes. The result gives us the impression of life as a smooth film. In order to compensate for this moment of suppressed vision we assume, not unreasonably, that most objects in a room are stationary. The ticking second hand tricks our brains. Or that’s the theory. The problem with this explanation is that the clock illusion occurs with other senses too. A similar phenomenon known as the dead phone illusion happens in countries where the dialling tone consists of beeps interspersed with silence. If you pick the phone up at the right moment the initial silence feels so long that you get the impression that the phone is dead.

So what does this have to do with attention and the warping of time? Well, the researcher Amelia Hunt has an alternative explanation for the clock illusion, one that sheds light on the way attention can affect time perception. We can catch a ball or drive a car safely while constantly gauging times with precision, but overt timings are more difficult to get right.
19
Her explanation for the clock illusion has nothing to do with vision and everything to do with attention. Time, she suggests, is distorted because we have glanced across the room and are concentrating on something new. When we focus our attention on an event, even one as brief as looking at the clock, it creates the impression that it lasted longer than it did. Attention can also explain why boredom slows down time. Writing in the nineteenth century, the influential psychologist and philosopher William James suggested that boredom occurs when ‘we grow attentive to the passage of time itself’. To illustrate this sensation, he suggested closing your eyes and getting a helpful person to tell you when a minute has passed. Try it: it seems like ages. And that silent minute will seem even longer if the preceding minute was filled with music or speech. Likewise the involvement of attention can explain why rejection slows time down. The rejection causes us to focus in on ourselves and our shortcomings, and once again time is stretched.

Whether we’re falling through the sky or watching a clock, it is becoming clear that our relationship with time is not straightforward. Attention is just one part of the story; our shared understanding of time is another; and in the next chapter I’ll ask how it is that the brain measures time at all, when there is no specialised sense organ for time.

Meanwhile we left Chuck Berry suspended in time in
mid-air on the New Year’s Day gliding trip that had gone so wrong. By now he would surely have crashed to ground. Standing on Coronet Peak, his aviator friends had heard a bang. They watched as the wings fell off the glider and saw that Chuck was starting to fall, seemingly dragging the remains of the aircraft behind him. Then he disappeared. Why wasn’t he opening the reserve chute? Without it there was no way he could survive.

With so much to think about Chuck had not felt particularly frightened; even though time had expanded, he didn’t have time to be scared. He stretched his arm as far as he could and finally found what he had been searching for, the handle of the chute, flapping in the wind. He yanked it hard, yearning for that comforting sensation that comes when the canopy bursts into bloom and you begin to rock gently in your harness, as though picked up and cradled by a giant. But that didn’t quite happen. He began to slow a bit, but knew he was still falling too fast. Looking up, he understood why. The chute was old-fashioned, small and round. ‘Like the ones the airmen had on D-day?’ I asked him. ‘Like that, but ten times smaller.’ Now he was scared. After all that he’d gone through, he was going to crash anyway. If only there were some trees. Usually he would do anything he could to avoid landing in trees, but at this speed and with a 2,000-foot drop, a fall broken by branches could be his only chance of survival. But there were no trees nearby, just the bushes on the steep slope of Coronet Peak. Time had been passing achingly slowly. Now everything changed. It was fast. There was no way of steering, and he crashed into the bushes.

Half an hour later he was still lying on the ground, strapped into the wreckage of the cockpit. He had no idea how he had got there. Looking down at his clothes he realised he must have been gliding, but here he was stranded on a hillside without a glider. Then he saw the Swift’s wings higher up the hill.

The global positioning satellite system in Chuck’s pocket provides some unintended data on time perception. It too survived the crash. So while Chuck’s perceptions of the accident might tell him one story, the GPS and its accurate records of his precise location at each moment in time tells a different one. ‘That freefall took forever. It was the longest time.’ In fact that everlasting fall had taken just 10 seconds and the hurtle to the ground with the tiny parachute had lasted another five. After his crash, Chuck remembers calling the air traffic control tower in Queenstown to inform them about the accident. He only remembers one call, but the phone shows he spoke to them twice, suggesting he was confused, if not concussed. He lay high up on the side of the hill waiting for his rescuers. It was 40 minutes before they reached him, but now time was playing tricks on his mind again. It was speeding up. He was so elated that he was convinced they arrived in 10 minutes. ‘I was just stoked to be alive, really. There’s nothing better.’ And as for injuries, he told me, ‘I had a bump on the head and a prickle in the wrist. That was it.’

BOOK: Time Warped
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