16 July 2006

Time Perception

J and I typically have trouble finding parking in North Beach: if it weren't for the fact that two of our best friends live there, I doubt I'd ever go. Tonight, J was doing the driving, and hence, the search for a parking spot. After about ten minutes of circling, looking at spots that were just barely too small for my Mini Cooper, and getting beaten to spots by other parking predators, I looked up at the clock and noticed that actually, only two minutes had passed. Not ten.

I remembered reading a long time ago that feverish people have distorted perceptions of time, and I wondered whether this phenomenon applied to people who were anxious too. It seemed logical to me that stimulation of bodily systems might mess up our ability to judge the passage of time.

One of the original studies about fever and time perception was conducted by a psychologist named Hudson Hoagland. In 1933, his wife had a fever and sent him to the drugstore for medicine. When he returned twenty minutes later, she complained that he had taken over an hour to run the errand. Inspired by her insistence, he asked her to count to sixty at what she guessed were one-second intervals, and, sure enough, her perception of a minute ranged from 34 seconds to 52 seconds. The higher her temperature, the more distorted her perception of time.

Apparently, the cause of this has to do with fever speeding up metabolism, heart rate, reactions of enzymes, and other bodily functions that impact our perception of time. Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (the "fight or flight" response) will also have this effect.

I found an article by Hancock and Weaver about time distortion under stress. They discuss a set of interviews conducted with pilots who ejected from aircraft during combat. Many of these survivors confirmed the sensation of a slowing of time when recalling their stressful incidents. Hancock and Weaver also cited a sadistic study in which arachnophobes were exposed to a spider for 45 seconds. Afterwards, they estimated the time of exposure to be (average) 60 seconds. People with no fear of spiders were used as controls in the same task, and they estimated the time interval more accurately (average = 41 seconds).

So, there you have it - predatory parking in San Francisco stimulates my fight-or-flight response, which probably increases my heart rate and blood pressure, and causes me to perceive that time is running faster than it really is. Maybe I will take up yoga, after all.

Scholarly reference (no link, sadly):

Hoagland, H., The physiological control of judgements of duration: evidence for a chemical clock. J. General Psychology, 9:267-287, 1933.

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