Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Why time doesn't move while reading textbooks

You know how time flies when you are simply lazing around or watching a movie? But when you take an advanced physics book and read, it feels like hours even though your watch shows only minutes since you started reading? Or you might remember the meme which says- Sleeping in the morning: 7 am->sleep for 5 mins->8am; Sleeping in class: 1pm->sleep for an hour->1.05pm. (Couldn't find the image. if someone finds it, let me know).

I always thought this is something you think but not really a biological phenomenon. Though, now that I think of it, how can there be a phenomenon not based on natural science? Anyway, I never thought someone would study and try to explain this. But I read this post today and it looks like we might be getting close to understanding why this happens.

The basic premise of the post is that our perception of time is based on what the brain tells us i.e. there is no special faculty or organ by which the body measures time. So, the brain infers the passage of time based on information from the other senses. Now, when we are doing something new or complex, say solving a system of DE, the brain has a lot more work to do and infers that a lot of time has passed.  This is also why time slows down at important crucial moments- when your brain is trying to process as much sensory information as possible. Whereas, when you are doing a familiar task, the brain has much lesser work so time seems to fly.

Great explanation, huh?

But wait.. it still doesn't explain some things. When you are not doing anything and are bored, you usually feel that time is moving slowly. Your brain can't be working too much at that point- in fact, it is not doing much work at all. Similarly, when you are very busy or racing against a deadline, time flies past without you realizing it. Don't these seem to contradict the article's premise? 

The only way (that I see) to resolve this contradiction is to negate or extend their premise. I'd guess that time perception in the brain also depends on attention i.e. how involved you are. The more focused you are on something, the faster time seems to get. And when you have nothing much to focus on- it seems slower. Maybe the attention part is also a lot of work for the brain.. Anyway some time perception neuroscientist has to validate my theory and unify these. Right now, it's just something I leave you to think about...

In any case, the idea about time perception was cool, right?

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