Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

15 JULY, 2013

Why Time Slows Down When We’re Afraid, Speeds Up as We Age, and Gets Warped on Vacation


“Time perception matters because it is the experience of time that roots us in our mental reality.”

Given my soft spot for famous diaries, it should come as no surprise that I keep one myself. Perhaps the greatest gift of the practice has been the daily habit of reading what I had written on that day a year earlier; not only is it a remarkable tool of introspection and self-awareness, but it also illustrates that our memory “is never a precise duplicate of the original [but] a continuing act of creation” and how flawed our perception of time is — almost everything that occurred a year ago appears as having taken place either significantly further in the past (“a different lifetime,” I’d often marvel at this time-illusion) or significantly more recently (“this feels like just last month!”). Rather than a personal deficiency of those of us befallen by this tendency, however, it turns out to be a defining feature of how the human mind works, the science of which is at first unsettling, then strangely comforting, and altogether intensely interesting.

That’s precisely what acclaimed BBC broadcaster and psychology writer Claudia Hammond explores in Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (public library) — a fascinating foray into the idea that our experience of time is actively created by our own minds and how these sensations of what neuroscientists and psychologists call “mind time” are created. As disorienting as the concept might seem — after all, we’ve been nursed on the belief that time is one of those few utterly reliable and objective things in life — it is also strangely empowering to think that the very phenomenon depicted as the unforgiving dictator of life is something we might be able to shape and benefit from. Hammond writes:

We construct the experience of time in our minds, so it follows that we are able to change the elements we find troubling — whether it’s trying to stop the years racing past, or speeding up time when we’re stuck in a queue, trying to live more in the present, or working out how long ago we last saw our old friends. Time can be a friend, but it can also be an enemy. The trick is to harness it, whether at home, at work, or even in social policy, and to work in line with our conception of time. Time perception matters because it is the experience of time that roots us in our mental reality. Time is not only at the heart of the way we organize life, but the way we experience it.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time by German engraver Christoph Weigel, published in the early 1720s; from Cartographies of Time. (Click for details)

Among the most intriguing illustrations of “mind time” is the incredible elasticity of how we experience time. (“Where is it, this present?,” William James famously wondered. “It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”) For instance, Hammond points out, we slow time down when gripped by mortal fear — the cliche about the slow-motion car crash is, in fact, a cognitive reality. This plays out even in situations that aren’t life-or-death per se but are still associated with strong feelings of fear. Hammond points to a study in which people with arachnophobia were asked to look at spiders — the very object of their intense fear — for 45 seconds and they overestimated the elapsed time. The same pattern was observed in novice skydivers, who estimated the duration of their peers’ falls as short, whereas their own, from the same altitude, were deemed longer.

Inversely, time seems to speed up as we get older — a phenomenon of which competing theories have attempted to make light. One, known as the “proportionality theory,” uses pure mathematics, holding that a year feels faster when you’re 40 than when you’re 8 because it only constitutes one fortieth of your life rather than a whole eighth. Among its famous proponents are Vladimir Nabokov and William James. But Hammond remains unconvinced:

The problem with the proportionality theory is that it fails to account for the way we experience time at any one moment. We don’t judge one day in the context of our whole lives. If we did, then for a 40-year-old every single day should flash by because it is less than one fourteen-thousandth of the life they’ve had so far. It should be fleeting and inconsequential, yet if you have nothing to do or an enforced wait at an airport for example, a day at 40 can still feel long and boring and surely longer than a fun day at the seaside packed with adventure for a child. … It ignores attention and emotion, which … can have a considerable impact on time perception.

Another theory suggests that perhaps it is the tempo of life in general that has accelerated, making things from the past appear as slower, including the passage of time itself.

But one definite change does take place with age: As we grow older, we tend to feel like the previous decade elapsed more rapidly, while the earlier decades of our lives seem to have lasted longer. Similarly, we tend to think of events that took place in the past 10 years as having happened more recently than they actually did. (Quick: What year did the devastating Japanese tsunami hit? When did we lose Maurice Sendak?) Conversely, we perceive events that took place more than a decade ago as having happened even longer ago. (When did Princess Diana die? What year was the Chernobyl disaster?) This, Hammond points out, is known as “forward telescoping”:

It is as though time has been compressed and — as if looking through a telescope — things seem closer than they really are. The opposite is called backward or reverse telescoping, also known as time expansion. This is when you guess that events happened longer ago than they really did. This is rare for distant events, but not uncommon for recent weeks.


The most straightforward explanation for it is called the clarity of memory hypothesis, proposed by the psychologist Norman Bradburn in 1987. This is the simple idea that because we know that memories fade over time, we use the clarity of a memory as a guide to its recency. So if a memory seems unclear we assume it happened longer ago.

And yet the brain does keep track of time, even if inaccurately. Hammond explains the factors that come into play with our inner chronometry:

It is clear that however the brain counts time, it has a system that is very flexible. It takes account of [factors like] emotions, absorption, expectations, the demands of a task and even the temperature .The precise sense we are using also makes a difference; an auditory event appears longer than a visual one. Yet somehow the experience of time created by the mind feels very real, so real that we feel we know what to expect from it, and are perpetually surprised whenever it confuses us by warping.

In fact, memory — which is itself a treacherous act of constant transformation with each recollection — is intricately related to this warping process:

We know that time has an impact on memory, but it is also memory that creates and shapes our experience of time. Our perception of the past moulds our experience of time in the present to a greater degree than we might realize. It is memory that creates the peculiar, elastic properties of time. It not only gives us the ability to conjure up a past experience at will, but to reflect on those thoughts through autonoetic consciousness — the sense that we have of ourselves as existing across time — allowing us to re-experience a situation mentally and to step outside those memories to consider their accuracy.

But, curiously, we are most likely to vividly remember experiences we had between the ages of 15 and 25. What the social sciences might simply call “nostalgia” psychologists have termed the “reminiscence bump” and, Hammond argues, it could be the key to why we feel like time speeds up as we get older:

The reminiscence bump involves not only the recall of incidents; we even remember more scenes from the films we saw and the books we read in our late teens and early twenties. … The bump can be broken down even further — the big news events that we remember best tend to have happened earlier in the bump, while our most memorable personal experiences are in the second half.


The key to the reminiscence bump is novelty. The reason we remember our youth so well is that it is a period where we have more new experiences than in our thirties or forties. It’s a time for firsts — first sexual relationships, first jobs, first travel without parents, first experience of living away from home, the first time we get much real choice over the way we spend our days. Novelty has such a strong impact on memory that even within the bump we remember more from the start of each new experience.

Most fascinating of all, however, is the reason the “reminiscence bump” happens in the first place: Hammond argues that because memory and identity are so closely intertwined, it is in those formative years, when we’re constructing our identity and finding our place in the world, that our memory latches onto particularly vivid details in order to use them later in reinforcing that identity. Interestingly, Hammond points out, people who undergo a major transformation of identity later in life — say, changing careers or coming out — tend to experience a second identity bump, which helps them reconcile and consolidate their new identity.

So what makes us date events more accurately? Hammond sums up the research:

You are most likely to remember the timing of an event if it was distinctive, vivid, personally involving and is a tale you have recounted many times since.

But one of the most enchanting instances of time-warping is what Hammond calls the Holiday Paradox — “the contradictory feeling that a good holiday whizzes by, yet feels long when you look back.” (An “American translation” might term it the Vacation Paradox.) Her explanation of its underlying mechanisms is reminiscent of legendary psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s theory of the clash between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”. Hammond explains:

The Holiday Paradox is caused by the fact that we view time in our minds in two very different ways — prospectively and retrospectively. Usually these two perspectives match up, but it is in all the circumstances where we remark on the strangeness of time that they don’t.


We constantly use both prospective and retrospective estimation to gauge time’s passing. Usually they are in equilibrium, but notable experiences disturb that equilibrium, sometimes dramatically. This is also the reason we never get used to it, and never will. We will continue to perceive time in two ways and continue to be struck by its strangeness every time we go on holiday.

Like the “reminiscence bump,” the Holiday Paradox has to do with the quality and concentration of new experiences, especially in contrast to familiar daily routines. During ordinary life, time appears to pass at a normal pace, and we use markers like the start of the workday, weekends, and bedtime to assess the rhythm of things. But once we go on vacation, the stimulation of new sights, sounds, and experiences injects a disproportionate amount of novelty that causes these two types of time to misalign. The result is a warped perception of time.

Ultimately, this source of great mystery and frustration also holds the promise of great liberation and empowerment. Hammond concludes:

We will never have total control over this extraordinary dimension. Time will warp and confuse and baffle and entertain however much we learn about its capacities. But the more we learn, the more we can shape it to our will and destiny. We can slow it down or speed it up. We can hold on to the past more securely and predict the future more accurately. Mental time-travel is one of the greatest gifts of the mind. It makes us human, and it makes us special.

Time Warped, a fine addition to these essential reads on time, goes on to explore such philosophically intriguing and practically useful questions as how our internal clocks dictate our lives, what the optimal pace of productivity might be, and why inhabiting life with presence is the only real way to master time. Pair it with this remarkable visual history of humanity’s depictions of time.

Photographs: Public domain images unless otherwise noted

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12 JULY, 2013

Thoreau on Friendship, Sympathy, and Animal Consciousness


“A man [is] commonly a locked-up chest to us, to open whom, unless we have the key of sympathy, will make our hearts bleed.”

What better way to complement Maurice Sendak’s lovely vintage illustrated ode to friendship than with a related reflection from one of modern history’s most beloved thinkers? In The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library) — which also gave us, for a piece of appropriate meta-irony, Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau — the beloved transcendentalist, born on July 12, 1817, considers the essence of friendship, what it means to be human, and how inextricably connected we are to our fellow non-human beings, who are just as worthy of our sympathy and respect as our human friends.

On July 13, 1857 — the day after his 40th birthday — Thoreau awakens to a resolution for celebrating capital-F friendship as a centerpiece of the good life:

I sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities, a new life and relation to me, which perhaps I had not experienced for many months. Such transient thoughts have been my nearest approach to realization of it, thoughts which I know of no one to communicate to. I suddenly erect myself in my thoughts, or find myself erected, infinite degrees above the possibility of ordinary endeavors, and see for what grand stakes the game of life may be played. I catch an echo of the great strain of Friendship played somewhere, and feel compensated for months and years of commonplace. It is as if I were serenaded, and the highest and truest compliments were paid me. The universe gives me three cheers. Friendship is the fruit which the year should bear; it lends its fragrance to the flowers, and it is in vain if we get only a large crop of apples without it.

For Thoreau, the essence of friendship was the cultivation of true sympathy. On a “stern, bleak, inhospitable” January day in 1856, with the temperature a cruel “5° at noon and at 4 P.M.,” Thoreau observes a closed pitch pine cone he had gathered three days prior, which had just opened in his chamber. From this seemingly mundane occurrence he extracts a profound meditation on existence and the ties of sympathy, by way of a squirrel — that uncanny gift from translating the minutia of the physical world into timeless wisdom on the metaphysical is the defining characteristic of his journal:

If you would be convinced how differently armed the squirrel is naturally for dealing with pitch pine cones, just try to get one off with your teeth. He who extracts the seeds from a single closed cone with the aid of a knife will be constrained to confess that the squirrel earns his dinner. It is a rugged customer, and will make your fingers bleed. But the squirrel has the key to this conical and spiny chest of many apartments. He sits on a post, vibrating his tail, and twirls it as a plaything.

But so is a man commonly a locked-up chest to us, to open whom, unless we have the key of sympathy, will make our hearts bleed.

In fact, this combined sensitivity to other living beings and exaltation of sympathy as a defining duty of what it means to be human emerges again and again throughout the diary as Thoreau touches on insights predating the modern science of animal consciousness by more than a century. On March 31, 1842, in the last entry before his three-year journal hiatus that ended when Thoreau moved to Walden, he contemplates our interconnectedness with the rest of the living world and the joyous humility that springs from its recognition:

All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden’s hair. How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!


It is the saddest thought of all, that what we are to others, that we are much more to ourselves, — avaricious, mean, irascible, affected, — we are the victims of these faults. If our pride offends our humble neighbor, much more does it offend ourselves, though our lives are never so private and solitary. How many young finny contemporaries of various character and destiny, form and habits, we have even in this water! And it will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries. It is of some import. We shall be some time friends, I trust, and know each other better. Distrust is too prevalent now. We are so much alike! have so many faculties in common! I have not yet met with the philosopher who could, in a quite conclusive, undoubtful way, show me the, and, if not the, then how any, difference between man and a fish. We are so much alike! How much could a really tolerant, patient, humane, and truly great and natural man make of them, if he should try? For they are to be understood, surely, as all things else, by no other method than that of sympathy. It is easy to say what they are not to us, i.e., what we are not to them; but what we might and ought to be is another affair.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 is sublime in its entirety, the kind of lifelong companion to be revisited regularly and voraciously for a wholehearted existence.

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10 JULY, 2013

David Lynch on Using Meditation as an Anchor of Creative Integrity


“It’s a joke to think that a film is going to mean anything if somebody else fiddles with it.”

“Mindfulness meditation is essentially cognitive fitness with a humanist face,” it’s been said. And what more essential cognitive fitness than that required to stay sane in a world that constantly demands more and more?

In 2005, the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, held the first annual “David Lynch Weekend for Peace and Meditation” — an initiative by the David Lynch Foundation, which has invested millions of dollars in teaching Transcendental Meditation techniques to students around the world. Lynch gave the keynote at the conference, which was followed by the typical audience Q&A. In this short video, he answers a young man’s question about the age-old tension between commercial pressure and creative integrity, pointing to meditation as a gateway to shaking free of the creativity-squashing discomfort that comes from practical pressures like deadlines and budgets. A year later, Lynch would come to collect his wisdom on meditation and creativity in Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (public library).

I came from painting. And a painter has none of those worries. A painter paints a painting. No one comes in and says, “You’ve got to change that blue.” It’s a joke to think that a film is going to mean anything if somebody else fiddles with it. If they give you the right to make the film, they owe you the right to make it the way you think it should be — the filmmaker. The filmmaker decides on every single element, every single word, every single sound, every single thing going down that highway through time. Otherwise, it won’t hold together. When there’s even a little hint of pressure coming from someplace else — like deadlines or going overbudget… — this affects the film. And you just want support, support, support… in a perfect world… so that you can really get the thing to be correct.

Now, this doesn’t happen these days — so, “support, support, support” — when you do dive within and experience this pure self — atma — pure consciousness — it’s the home of all the laws of nature. You get more in tune with those and … nature starts supporting you. So you have that feeling, even if they’re breathing down your neck, and there’s pressure here and pressure here, it doesn’t matter — inside … I say, “Every day is like a Saturday morning” — you got a great feeling, and it grows and grows and grows.

Catching the Big Fish is excellent in its entirety. Pair this short teaser with David Lynch’s instructions for how to make a Ricky Board and Bill Watterson’s indispensable 1990 commencement address on creative integrity.

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03 JULY, 2013

Beware of Beauty Overload: The Adaptive Eye of the Beholder


How sensory adaptation is compromising our experience of love.

“Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit,” Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff wrote in her indispensable meditation on the psychology of beauty. But beauty’s primal appeal and its polarizing power on our inner world has a dark side. In a chapter unambiguously titled “Why Playboy Is Bad for Your Mental Mechanisms” from his altogether engrossing book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing our View of Nature (public library), Arizona State University psychology professor Douglas T. Kenrick explores how overexposure to beauty makes us recalibrate our own criteria for what is beautiful to a point that harms human relationships and even our experience of love.

He describes a curious experiment inspired by his own everyday experience as a graduate student twenty years earlier, when he caught himself noticing a disproportionate number of attractive female students in the crowd passing by during campus rush hour. Fascinated by this phenomenon of extreme selective attention when it comes to beauty, Kenrick decided examine it empirically two decades later as a formal researcher and replicated his youthful ogling in an experimental setup:

When we strained our subjects’ attentional capacities, we found exactly what I had suspected several decades before: Men overestimated the number of beautiful women (though their estimates of handsome men were unaffected). Female subjects also overestimated the frequency of gorgeous women in the rapidly presented crowds, but they did not overestimate the frequency of handsome men. The whole body of findings points to a simple conclusion about beautiful women: They capture everyone’s attention and monopolize downstream cognitive processes. The conclusion about handsome men is different: They grab women’s eyes but do not hold their minds; good-looking guys quickly get washed out of the stream of mental processing.

But pointing to other research he has conducted with his colleague Sara Gutierres, Kenrick argues that “an overdose of beauty might have ill effects for both sexes, albeit different ones for women than for men.” Citing Harry Helson’s famous 1947 theory of sensory adaptation, which holds that we make psychological adjustments as we match new forms of stimulation — hot or cold, salty or sweet, heavy or light, etc. — against our adaptation level, he began suspecting that sensory adaptation might be at work when it comes to our judgments of beauty. So Kenrick and Gutierres set out to test the idea:

In our first study, [we] asked people to judge an average-looking woman after being exposed to one of two series of other women. Half the participants judged the target woman after seeing a series of unusually beautiful women; the other half judged her after seeing a series of average-looking women. As in the case of expose to extremes of water temperature, exposure to extremes of physical appearance affected people’s judgments of what was average. As we had predicted, an average-looking woman was judged significantly uglier than normal if the subjects had just been gazing at a series of beauties.

Josef Albers: 'Homage to the Square'

Another study sought to assess whether these same processes played out in our judgments of people we know and love. Under the pretext of conducting research on “community standards of aesthetic judgment,” the scientists told participants they were collecting opinions from a random sample of students to settle an ongoing controversy about what is considered good and bad taste in visual art:

Subjects in the control group first judged the artistic merit of abstract paintings such as Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square. The men in the experimental group saw centerfolds from Playboy and Penthouse; the women saw handsome naked men from Playgirl. After they had looked at either paintings or centerfolds, we asked our participants to rate their feelings about their current relationship partners. Again, there was a cover story — that psychologists were divided on whether being in a relationship opened people up to new aesthetic experiences or made them less open to novelty. To test which side was right, we told them, we needed to know about the extent to which their reported level of commitment depended on whether they had seen centerfolds.

Once again, the results displayed a curious gender difference:

Men who had viewed the centerfolds rated themselves as less in love with their partners; women’s judgments of their partners were not so easily swayed.

Playboy December 1972

What the study suggests is at once obvious and ominous: Exposure to beautiful women changes people’s reference points for what is beautiful. Kenrick considers the implications for men:

The harmful side effect for guys … is this: Real women … do not look as attractive once the mind has been calibrated to assume the centerfolds are normal. And for guys in relationships, exposure to beautiful photos undermines their feelings about the real flesh-and-blood women with whom their lives are actually intertwined.

(It turns out, then, that Esquire’s 1949 dating tips were not only amusingly appalling in their sexism, but also scientifically off in advising women to only bring their most glamorous friend to a double date.)

But lest we’re too quick to assume men are the only ones who conform to the worst of their gender’s stereotypes, women didn’t fare much better when the experiment was repeated with power rather than beauty as the variable:

Seeing a series of socially dominant men undermined women’s commitment, just as seeing attractive women had done to men’s.

But what could be driving this toxic allure of beauty? Kenrick suggests a biological basis for our sensory receptors, which evolved to make our ancestors aware of opportunities and threats while looking for mates in a world very different from our own — but amidst today’s media overstimulation, he argues, our natural mechanisms are overwhelmed and begin to malfunction. He likens our relationship with beauty to our relationship with food:

In a sense, the images from Hollywood and Madison Avenue are analogous to the flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The tasty flavors and images tap into mechanisms that were designed to promote survival and reproduction in a much different world. Consume too much, though, and it may be harmful to your health.

Like Clay Johnson did in his information diet guide, Kenrick suggests a cure that is at once obvious and onerous, simple but certainly not easy, and altogether necessary for the sake of sanity:

So what’s a mortal to do? Are we helpless in the face of our evolved mechanisms, which may lead us astray without our conscious awareness? Not completely. People who understand the dangers of overabundant fats and sugars can control their diets. People who understand the dangers of an overabundant diet of mass-media images can stop gorging on Playboy, People, Sex and the City, or Dancing with the Stars.

It may sound simplistic, perhaps, but at the heart of this empirically grounded suggestion is the idea that our beauty diet is just one of the harmful habit loops we can rewire if we remember that, as William James famously put it, “we are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.”

Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life is absolutely captivating in its entirety, exploring such fascinating subjects as the relationship between sex and religion, the psychology of homicidal fantasies, and the missing bricks in Maslow’s classic pyramid of needs.

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