Chapter 6: Temporal Perception

The hostages in Bel Canto’s Chapter Six face another week of the mentally-exhausting situation that was supposed to be a one-night party. As I’m definitely a “watch guy,” Gen’s parting with his timepiece really stood out to me. “I’m better off without it,” Gen says; this ultimately left me considering the legitimacy of his defense. What is our perception of time? Is the concept instinctively human? How does time itself affect us on a psychological level? It is with these questions in mind that I embark on this week’s journey through Slow Research.

Paul Fraisse writes in his book on The Psychology of Time of an experiment that was conducted on small flat worms called Convoluta, which “burrow down into… sand as soon as the motion of the rising tide begins.” When placed in an aquarium separated from the tides of the ocean, however, the trend continues for four or five days, proving that the perception of time through induced rhythm is not only exogenous but also endogenous (Fraisse, 18). This experiment demonstrates that even the most primitive of organisms are able to grasp some perception of time when isolated from external factors.

According to Valtteri Arstila of Subjective Time: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Temporality, “circadian physiological rhythms define time units of a day that are biologically determined and have an impact on human experience and behavior” (Arstila). In studies of human subjects “living in experimental isolation,” it has been confirmed that one’s circadian clock is “related to human time perception.” And further still, Arstila writes of how the circadian clock is being studied through the neurobiological basis of its “structural and molecular properties” (Arstila). So, if circadian rhythm – a phenomenon that is studied on a biological level – is based on human time perception, then the concept of time is indeed instinctively human.

But what about the psychological effects? Gen talks with Fyodrov about how they’re experiencing the “longest days in history,” and that he’d be better off not having his watch to remind him of the time. What can explain the phenomenon Gen talks of with Fyodrov here in Chapter Six? Arstila also writes that “time is… an experience,” that “we sense the passage of time and feel the duration of events” – explaining Gen’s perception of slow, long days. But what makes the days feel particularly slow? Well, Arstila argues the experience of time can be “painful,” especially when we’re bored or are given the actual impression of time passing slowly (Arstila). In other words, Gen’s watch only would have reminded him of the slow passage of time, thus prolonging his days and agitated emotions.

The environment of the hostage situation itself is another factor that can contribute to the hostages’ acute perception of slow time passage. “In periods of mental distress such as depressed mood or anxiety, the passage of time slows down and subjective duration expands” (Arstila). Aristila continues even further and claims “the absence of a stimulating environment… [can lead to] the impression of time passing too slowly.” These are significant emotions, and I’m beginning to understand Gen’s justification for separating himself from measured time.

According to author Antonio Damasio of The Feeling of What Happens, the primitive insular cortex portion of our mammalian brains is responsible for our sensing these emotions (Damasio, 48). As this region of the brain is so deeply-rooted into our nervous system and plays such a key role in developing emotion (positive and negative), the effects are brought on involuntarily (Damasio, 49). In his words, “we are about as effective at stopping an emotion as we are at preventing a sneeze.”

In conclusion, our perception of time is very much a part of who we are as humans. Our circadian rhythms (sleeping, breathing, eye-blinking, etc.) enable us to keep track of time on a biological scale when separated from external factors of the cosmos. Emotions felt through this temporal perspective are involuntary, impossible to ignore, and manifest themselves to the sharp epicenter of our consciousness. As we can confirm from the reading alone, Gen gifts his watch to Beatriz not only so she’ll be freed from asking when her show will start, but also so Gen will be made less aware of the slow passage of time. Through further research we can conclude that Gen in fact made a wise decision; he will spare himself from much of the psychological torment caused by the nagging annoyance of measured time’s presence. When we are not preoccupied with our daily lives (i.e. tired and bored of an ongoing hostage situation with few interesting opportunities for engagement), our lack of distracting thought can get the best of us and highlight the emotions we wish to suppress.

Works Cited

Damasio, Antonio. “Emotion and Feeling.” The Feeling of What Happens. Harcourt Brace. 48, 49. Print.

Graisse, Paul. “Adaptation to Periodic Changes.” The Psychology of Time. Harper & Row, 1963. 18. Print.

Valtteri Arstila. and Dan Lloyd. Subjective Time: The Philosophy, Psychology, and
Neuroscience of Temporality.
Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014. Project MUSE. Web. 7 Oct. 2015. <https://muse.jhu.edu/>.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 6: Temporal Perception

  1. slaudeman says:

    The passage of time is something that has occupied the human culture forever, probably. I have always found the manner in which time passes an interesting subject, partially because it is relatable in all cultures and to each individual. I think that one interesting research path you could take would be the factors that stress play in temporal perception – how do different people react under the same stressor? Is there a relationship, or is it unique? How does the same person react to different stressors? Are those reactions the same for each person or do they vary with the type of stress? Is emotional stress different from physical stress in the way we react?
    The psychology of time, I think, also has a lot of potential. How many times have you been taking a test and glanced up, and then suddenly you only had ten minutes left? How do we perceive time when we focus on it, versus when we wait patiently for it to pass? Is it even possible to wait patiently for something, or are we inherently incapable of waiting calmly for something to happen? If we think about it, events are always anticipated or feared – there are very few, if any, truly neutral events. We always have some expectation. That is possibly another research prompt. How do our expectations shape the way we perceive the passage of time? Do those expectations change the perception of time for everyone, or are they unique? Are some people really “more patient” than others?

    – Sara Laudeman

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  2. dgromels says:

    I’m just going to start by saying that the worm study you found is the coolest thing I’ve heard of in a while. When you mentioned the study in class, I was struck by how creative it was that the researchers were able to find a species that depends so much on its Circadian rhythm and take them out of their natural environments. You briefly mentioned in your post that there have been studies on people who are put in situations in which they live without the experience of time. I think it would be really interesting to look more at those or similar studies to see if living without time makes people happier or results in psychological problems like we discussed in class.

    As an extremely impatient person, I can sympathize with Gen’s feeling that it is painful to wait for time to pass. It would be interesting to look at what long periods of time spent without productive activity does to the human psyche. It seems that humans have some instinctive urge to be productive, and there are likely some psychological repercussions when we feel complete boredom for days on end. You could even relate this back to the topic Anna and I discussed a few class sessions ago, solitary confinement. In my research, I read somewhere that prisoners who aren’t allowed access to education or work programs experience depression at much higher rates than those who are active within the prison community. This effect could be mostly attributed to the opportunity for socialization that these programs create, or it could be related to the ability to break the sense of boredom with meaningful, productive activity. It would be an interesting avenue to explore, especially because the interaction inmates in solitary confinement experience is extremely infrequent and occurs in accordance with a strict schedule.

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