What is time? Baby don’t hurt me.

A rad wolf

Our eyes detect light, our ears detect sounds – how do we perceive time?

Author: Reny Baykova, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Neuroscience, University of Sussex and The Perception Census researcher

Can you feel time passing, sometimes slowing down or speeding up? From my research, I can attest that “aside from Velcro, time is the most mysterious substance in the universe” (Dave Barry).

My most vivid memory of time distorting around me occurred when I watched the movie Stardust back in 2007 (if you haven’t seen the movie or read Neil Gaiman’s book, a feast awaits you). Seeing this movie felt like time magic to me, as I experienced 2 hours and 7 minutes of story just whizzing by. To my speechless disbelief, my friends had experienced no such rollercoaster. While I was alone in this experience, at least my friends and I still shared the pain of time seemingly moving backwards during our chemistry classes. We still don’t know why distortions like these occur or why they differ between people, but we hope to find some answers through our ongoing research on time perception. 

We tend to think about perception, our experience of the world, as being neatly divided into categories that map onto our sensory organs – our eyes detect light, our ears detect sounds. But how do we perceive the more abstract features of our world, like time?  We cannot see or hear time, and yet we can feel time passing even without looking at a clock (although I certainly require one). Unlike features such as brightness or pitch, time is not bound to any specific ‘primary’ sense and there is no time-sensing organ or time-dedicated brain region, which creates a conundrum that still puzzles scientists and philosophers. 

“Time” is an expansive concept that encapsulates everything from milliseconds to centuries and beyond. Here I am focusing on the experiences of time that we have in the second-to-minute-to-hour range. As my cherished memory of Stardust illustrates, the duration of time that we experience in this timescale doesn’t always match “clock time”. 

We routinely experience mind-boggling distortions in our perception of time which are so universal – “time flies when you are having fun” – that we’ve become oblivious to their strangeness. 

While the hands in all clocks everywhere tick away with the same speed, the speed of subjective time is not constant. Sometimes we have the feeling that time is sprinting ahead way faster than usual and dragging us with it, while on other occasions it feels like time is taking a break and we are stuck in the same second for hours. What causes time to shrink or stretch so effortlessly, to the point that we have invented sayings to capture our experience?

You can help us chip away at the mystery of how we create our conscious experience of time by taking part in The Perception Census. The Perception Census is an online citizen science project aiming to capture the different ways we each experience the world. The Census was developed by a team of scientists (including me), philosophers, and artists as part of the Dreamachine programme and is led by Professor Anil Seth (University of Sussex) and Professor Fiona Macpherson (University of Glasgow).

The Perception Census will help us uncover more about the hidden differences in how we perceive time, colours, music, shapes, and other aspects of the outside world. The world around us feels like an unquestionable, concrete scenery that we simply absorb through our senses. Without realising, however, our brains are active directors of our perceptual experiences. No two people will interpret the same objective reality the same way, but we remain largely blind to the rich diversity that exists among us. We hope that through The Perception Census we will be able to show there isn’t one correct way to perceive the world and that the perceptual diversity between us is wonderful and exciting.  

The Perception Census contains a specific section focusing on our perception of time which we developed in collaboration with the Time Perception group at Sussex, led by Dr Warrick Roseboom. It will take you around 15 minutes to complete and consists of three tasks in which you will estimate the length of various sounds and videos. At the end of each task, we will share with you what the goal of the task is, along with some of the findings from research done on the many factors that could be influencing our subjective experience of time. I invite you to take part and show us what time is like for you. And leave all timing gadgets and apps aside – there is more to our experience of time than the steady stream of seconds. 

“I started this study this morning and became completely absorbed by it…” – Perception Census participant

The Perception Census was created by a team of world-leading philosophers and scientists as part of the acclaimed Dreamachine Programme. It was developed by the University of Sussex and Glasgow in partnership with Collective act and as part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK. 

“Take some time out to take part in this and contribute to a fascinating study in to the diversity of human perception” – Perception Census participant



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