Unthinkable: Is the passing of time just an illusion?
A thought for the new year: how you perceive time has moral implications
An individual’s experience of time can be very subjective
Another year gone: did 2013 go fast or slow for you? Or was it just the same as all the others?
An individual’s experience of time can be very subjective. Studies from psychology show our own sense of whether time is going fast or slow can vary depending on things such as mood, heart rate and a sense of engagement in whatever activity you’re doing.
Dr Rachel Msetfi, of University of Limerick’s psychology department, points out that people are “usually not aware of their experience of time” until there is a jolt to their routine “due to simply having fun, being bored, or experiencing some psychological change like depression, or even a pharmacological change, taking a drug, drinking alcohol or even coffee”.
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- Unthinkable: Who’s running the show, you or your brain?
- Unthinkable: How far should we go to improve ourselves and our morality?
- Unthinkable: Is the passing of time just an illusion?
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In a recent paper, she studied the links between time perception, depression and feelings of helplessness. “There is lots of evidence from humans and animals that would put these very subtle changes in time perception down to biological changes, slowing or speeding of the internal clock, which could be due to changes in levels of serotonin and/or dopamine in the central nervous system.”
Research from the natural sciences is also adding to our knowledge of time. A study co-written by Dr Andrew Jackson, of the Department of Zoology at TCD, in the Animal Behaviour journal last September shows how different organisms experience time at different rates. Small-bodied animals with fast metabolic rates, such as flies and birds, experience time more slowly than large bodied animals with slow metabolic rates, such as turtles, the study concludes.
In addition, philosophers are grappling with the subject, among them Peter Simons, chair of moral philosophy at TCD. He continues a tradition stretching back to Aristotle asking questions not just about our experiences of time but whether it is, in fact, real.
Answering in the affirmative, equally for past, present and future, he provides today’s arresting idea:
We should be as morally concerned about both future wrongs and past wrongs as present wrongs.
Is the future determined in advance?
Peter Simons: “Philosophers have different views on this. Take two philosophers and you have got at least two opinions on your hands . . . Some philosophers think there really is no future – not that things aren’t going to come later but that the future is something that doesn’t exist.
“Others think it doesn’t exist yet, that the things that we are talking about in the future, like the next general election, will come to pass; it’s just we’re not there yet. And then there are others who think it is just there sitting in the future, waiting for us to, as at were, shuffle up towards it.”
Is it rational to distinguish between past, present and future?
“There have been two very different ways of thinking about time. Some people think – a lot of ordinary people and not just strange people like philosophers – that ‘past, present and future’ is a real distinction between three different aspects of time, that the future is something completely different from the past, and that’s something different from the present. That is anchored in the way we think, the way we act and speak. We have languages with tenses and so on.