Science

Want to manipulate the flow of time? Pay attention.

It’s About Time: Why time flies

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According to the clock, time proceeds at a constant rate: exactly one hour per hour, as it happens. But to our perceptions, the march of time is anything but uniform.

In this inaugural episode of the Monitor’s six-part podcast series “It’s About Time,” hosts Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll look into temporal illusions, what causes them, and how we can change the way we experience the passage of time. 

They interview Peter Tse, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College. He explains that our sense of time changes based on how much information we’re taking in. Shifting our perception of time, he says, is a matter of shifting our attention.

“When we’re paying full attention – like a small child – to events, we’ll notice the succession of events,” Dr. Tse says. “This will expand our experience of time. It will give us a much richer experience of the world. Everything – once you pay attention to it – is really quite amazing.”

Few are better at managing an audience’s attention than magicians. Misdirection is a cornerstone of magic; by steering the audience’s attention away from the actual mechanism of an illusion, the magician makes the effect all the more convincing. So Eoin and Rebecca talk to magician Debbie O’Carroll, who has entertained children for more than 30 years.

Florida put seniors first. How that changed its pandemic response.

“Your audience really wants to like you,” she says. “So you can really, really use that misdirection because they will take their minds where you tell them to go.” 

This is Episode 1 of “It’s About Time,” our six-part series that’s part of the Monitor’s “Rethinking the News” podcast. To listen to the other episodes on our site or on your favorite podcast player, please visit the “It’s About Time” series page

This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript below.

Audio Transcript

Jessica Mendoza: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Jessica Mendoza, a producer on this podcast. Over the next 6 weeks, we’ll be releasing a new science series called “It’s About Time.” Time affects literally everything, and thinking about it in new ways can shape how we live our lives. The series is hosted by Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll. Here are Rebecca and Eoin.

 [Music]

Eoin O’Carroll: OK, I want to play something for you. Tell me what you hear.

Rebecca Asoulin: OK.

[Risset Rhythm plays]

Rebecca: That is so stressful, I feel like I’m in a horror film or like something terrible going to happen. 

Eoin: It sounds like it’s getting faster and faster, doesn’t it?

Rebecca: You’re going to tell me it’s not actually getting faster, right?

Eoin: It’s not getting faster. It feels like it’s going somewhere, but it’s not.

Rebecca: Wait, what?

[Fade out Risset as series theme begins]

Rebecca: This is “It’s About Time.” A series all about …

Eoin: Time. I’m Eoin O’Carroll. 

Rebecca: And I’m Rebecca Asoulin. 

Eoin: In this science series, we interview experts on time. They’ll help us unravel its mysteries.

Rebecca: Because understanding time more deeply can help us make the most of the time we have. We can depend upon time passing. You’re listening to this in the present. Tomorrow this experience will be in the past and you’ll be in the future thinking about having listened to this podcast.

Eoin: We’re used to thinking of time as just sort of being there, in the background. Time is almost like a stage on which events play out. But in this series we’re going to flip that. The stage is now the star. 

Rebecca: In this episode, we’ll dig into why time often seems to slow down and speed up. And why experiencing the world more like a child could help us all slow down and make the most of our time. 

[Fade in Risset Rhythm]

Eoin: I promise this illusion will help us start to understand those bigger questions.

Rebecca: So it will solve all my existential time anxiety. 

Eoin: Not by itself – but it starts us on the journey to calming that anxiety. 

Rebecca: What I hear is that it sounds like the rhythm is endlessly speeding up.

Eoin: Right so if it were endlessly speeding up then it would eventually just become one big blur like this…

[Play speeding up continuously version of Risset rhythm]

Eoin: But this illusion is called the Risset rhythm. You make it by layering drum beats. As one beat speeds up, its volume fades out and a slower beat fades in. You don’t notice your attention slipping between the two beats.

Rebecca: So it is speeding up, kind of! You tricked me! 

Eoin: The individual beats are, but the overall rhythm is not. 

Rebecca: Illusions just make me feel really unsettled. I never get them, I never see them, I never hear them. 

Eoin: I think that’s the point. They reveal that the reality you perceive is not necessarily … reality. Illusions reveal that our minds are not these blank slates that passively record events, but are active participants in constructing our experience.

Peter Tse: Illusions are very important. Well, they’re mistakes right?

Eoin: That’s Peter Tse, a cognitive neuroscientist at Dartmouth College.  

Peter Tse: The problem is that there’s an objective world out there and we have really no access to it except through our senses. And then based upon what we have taken in sensorily we build up a representation of that outside world. What Immanuel Kant called the world in itself? 

And those two things hopefully correspond – the world in itself, which we have no direct access to. And then our best representation of that world based upon what we have sensed.

Eoin: Immanuel Kant was an Enlightenment philosopher. What Kant called “the world in itself” was his term for the world that exists independently of our perceptions. Interestingly, Kant argued that the foundation of all our perceptions is an intuitive understanding of time and space. 

Rebecca: And Illusions like the Risset Rhythm are kind of proof that those perceptions of the world don’t always correspond to whatever it is that’s out there beyond our senses.

Peter Tse: We’ll see things that are not there or will fail to see things that are there. So the system’s not perfect, but it’s certainly good enough for us to get around the world and to find food and shelter and mates and survive and have babies and pass it on. But the system has certain glitches and it’s pretty interesting to study those glitches because they are mistakes that sort of tell us about the normal state of processing. So a lot of work in my lab looks at illusions of different kinds, including temporal illusions to try to understand normal processing.

Eoin: Like Professor Tse, I’ve always been fascinated by illusions, and, more generally, the gap between perception and reality.  

Most people think of illusions as this fun thing that shows us how silly we are but I think they actually show us how smart we are. They show us how hard our minds are working all the time to present us with a coherent picture of reality. 

I get a lot of this fascination from my mom. She’s a professional magician. And magic is the art of illusion. During her more than three decades performing magic, she has seen all kinds of things go wrong in the moment, and she has seen time go all kinds of wonky.

Debbie O’Carroll: My husband, Eoin’s dad, is a musician and we work together a lot. Because two is better than one. 

Rebecca: That’s Eoin’s mom, Debbie O’Carroll … who has the same first name as my mom. 

Debbie O’Carroll: And we were doing a trick where I vanish a giant bowl of water. It just disappears. I have a cloth. I put the cloth over the water. I pick up the bowl and toss it at the audience. They think a big bowl of water is coming. It’s going to go all over them. 

Rebecca: But then Debbie ends up with a cloth in one hand and an empty bowl.

Eoin: The water vanished. 

Debbie O’Carroll: You need an assistant to do this trick to help out. And Eoin’s dad, my lovely assistant. I saw, he did the wrong thing. Magician’s assistants are also magicians. I think everybody knows this. But I just saw the look on your dad’s face. It was this isn’t going to work. Now, what are we gonna do? I felt the water going on my feet and the look on his face, I’m laughing now. But it was interminable. Interminable. And I just didn’t know what was going to happen to the trick. 

Rebecca: Debbie was able to vanish the water. But …

Debbie O’Carroll: I just left a little puddle of water on the floor, which in that case was OK. 

[Music]

Rebecca: So why did time slow down when Debbie’s trick went awry? The way Professor Tse explains this, there is no single clock in our minds that perfectly keeps track of time. Instead, our sense of time changes based on how much information we’re taking in. When we pay really close attention to something, we take in more information.The more information you take in, the slower time feels. When Eoin’s mom noticed her husband’s mistake, she began to pay really close attention which helped her react faster and is also what made time appear to slow down. 

Peter Tse: And when you pay attention, your brain goes into sort of Information processing overdrive processes a lot more information per unit objective time. 

And many people have had this feeling, you know, as something really significant or scary is happening, time seems to slow down. Now, of course, objective time can’t slow down. So it has to be that our subjective time is slowing down. And so in my lab, we’ve tried to understand why that is happening.

Eoin: Professor Tse and his colleagues ran a study where they bored people by showing them the same image, like a little black ball, over and over and over … and over and over again. 

Peter Tse: And then at some unexpected time, something really different happens. Say, you know, a face appears or the ball grows or changes color.

Rebecca: The subjects in the study reported that the different image lasted 50 percent longer. Even though it wasn’t actually on the screen any longer than the other images. This demonstrates the point that when we pay more attention to something – in this case because it was something new – time feels like it’s slowing down. 

[Music]

Peter Tse: And you know, I think cinematographers pick up on this because whenever there’s a really important event in a movie, they slow it down and I think that speaks to our psychological experience that time seems to slow down when something really important is happening.

Eoin: Like “Die Hard,” “Inception,” “The Matrix,” “Thelma and Louise.” 

Rebecca: Hard to go into the details because like Peter Tse said movies use this technique at very important moments, which means we’d be spoiling all them. Film is all about directing people’s senses – kind of like magic.

Eoin: Of course in magic, manipulating the audience’s attention is a big part of what makes magic work. 

Debbie O’Carroll: Yes. 

Eoin: You have misdirection. Flimflam. You call it. 

Debbie O’Carroll: Mumbo jumbo is more of it. 

Eoin: How do you do that? How do you manipulate the audience’s attention?

Debbie O’Carroll: We use misdirection through our speech, through our bodies, and through the audience. If we all of a sudden talk to somebody in the audience, everyone in the audience is going to turn around and look to see who you’re talking to. And so there’s a number of ways to create misdirection. It simply is being able to take one’s attention off one thing. And place it on another thing. And if you have an audience that is so open in listening and an audience as this is one thing every public speaker should know is your audience really wants to like you. And so they’re open. They’re sitting there. And so you can really, really use that misdirection because they will take their minds where you tell them to go. 

Rebecca: Debbie actually performed a trick for Eoin and me – back before the pandemic, when we could all be in the same room

Eoin: My mom brought in two velvet ropes tied together on each end. The two ropes had three large wooden beads strung on them. 

Debbie O’Carroll: And these are like play beads. If you can hear them clunking, they’re wooden. And now you know that these beads. The only way you can get them off the two strings is by pulling ‘em off the ends. Right?

Eoin: The ropes were tied in knots at the ends, so that the beads couldn’t slide off without first untying the knots. Or so it seemed. 

Debbie O’Carroll: So now what you need to do – and I am going to ask you, I want you to hold, Rebecca, if you don’t mind, one string in each hand. All right. Okay. Eoin. You have to go. Don’t pull yet. 

Eoin: Rebecca and I held on to the ends of the ropes.

Debbie O’Carroll: Now we’re gonna see if we can make these – one in each hand – these solid wooden beads penetrate. Now, do you know a magic word? 

Rebecca: Do I know a magic word? 

Debbie O’Carroll: One, two, three. Abracadabra.

Eoin and Debbie O’Carroll: Whoa! 

Eoin: The beads just fell off the ropes, even as we were holding each end.

Debbie O’Carroll: And now you can look at these beads, that’s solid, the beads just melted, by magic. 

Rebecca: So I’m looking at the bead, and I would assume it would have a little like slit, so then it would have been able to be pulled off. 

Debbie O’Carroll: Right.

Rebecca: Do you know how this works?

Eoin: Magic.

Rebecca: Does he know how it works? 

Debbie O’Carroll: He might. And again you have to realize that everything I said about misdirection happened in that trick. And so I was manipulating the way that you were dealing with what you saw in front of you.

Rebecca: If you were to put this trick back together. Could you not do it in front of us? Because then we’d be able to figure it out.

Eoin: Magician’s Oath! 

Rebecca: That’s not even a question about – I guess that is a question…

Eoin: When I was a kid, my mom made me take the Magician’s Oath, so that I wouldn’t reveal the secrets of her profession. 

Rebecca: During the trick, Debbie moved my attention away from the beads, so I wasn’t able to react to what she was doing.

But when I’m paying attention to something, I can react faster. That relationship between attention and reaction times turns out to be a pretty fundamental question in the field of psychology.

Peter Tse: The first psychologist was named Wilhelm Wundt and he set up the first experimental psychological lab in, I think in Leipzig, Germany, in about 1870 or so. 

Rebecca: The year was 1879, to be more exact but I’m still really impressed with Professor Tse’s memory.

Peter Tse: And he had this idea called prior entry. So Wundt’s theory of prior entry is that which we pay attention to gets into the brain faster. 

Rebecca: Many psychologists have tested the theory of prior entry. In 1991, psychologists Lew Stelmach and Chris Herdman published a study where they put subjects in front of a screen that had two rectangles appear at the exact same time. 

Peter Tse: But the subjects’ task was to attend to either the little rectangle on the left or the little rectangle on the right. The upshot of those data show that the side that subjects paid attention to was perceived to happen first. So, for example, if two rectangles appeared simultaneously, the one that they were attending to seemed to happen first, like ba-boom, even though they in fact both appeared simultaneously.

Rebecca: In magic, you can think of the magician and the assistant as the two rectangles. And you’re like the study subject being told to pay attention to one rectangle –  the assistant. 

Eoin: Who, let’s remember, is also a magician.

Debbie O’Carroll: In the past, of course, it was the magician’s assistant who is often a scantily dressed woman who would walk out and everyone would look at her and you could bring a Mack truck on the stage. At that point, you could drive it with 50 truckers.

Eoin: Illusions require spectators. In order for an illusion, whether on stage or over a podcast, to actually be an illusion, there needs to be a perceiving subject experiencing it. 

Debbie O’Carroll: I had a friend who was a magician who said the miracle of it is that it works. The trick, so it’s not a miracle to the audience. It’s a miracle to the magician.

Rebecca: And if the trick goes wrong, Debbie relies on her decades of stage experience. Because when you do something for the millionth time, you just know what to do. 

Eoin: The more we experience something, the more our minds tend to ignore the details. This helps us react faster. It’s kind of like a computer that compresses files to save hard disk space. 

Rebecca: This is called automatization, which describes what happens when you practice a skill so much that you no longer need to exert conscious effort to do that task. Automatization actually helps explain why the coronavirus lockdown seemed to break time.

Peter Tse: So my guess is and this is just a guess that, because before the lockdown started, people were sort of in. I would like an extreme example would be zombie mode where they’re just following scripts, but certainly people are just in their routine, but when routines are broken, suddenly we’re paying attention to all kinds of new things. So my guess is that time seems to have slowed down for many people since we all went into lockdown. Probably because we’re paying attention to all kinds of new things.

Rebecca: Humans evolved to think in categories or schemas for the same reason we evolve to do just about anything: survival. It’s really exhausting to pay attention all the time when we don’t have to. 

Peter Tse: Let’s say you’re some ancestor of ours and you’re highly attentive to all the particularities of a situation. And you say, well, I know that, you know, the vast majority of tigers are man eaters, but this one is different. And maybe, you know, I can generalize and poof, but those kinds of genes are weeded out.

Rebecca: So we generalize to survive. We put all tigers in a category, and label that category “dangerous.”  

Eoin: And when you think in terms of categories, you don’t take in every detail. You don’t count the claws on tiger, you don’t see if it’s ears are forward or backward or whether it’s signaling whether it’s going to pounce on you. You just react and that’s efficient. 

Peter Tse: So attention is a fantastic and powerful teacher that allows us to automatize or chunk the world. And as long as we chunk correctly, it’s our friend and it can lead to mastery of our world, to mastery of ourselves. But the danger is that we chunk incorrectly and then we create schemas and automatizations that are just wrong.

Eoin: For instance, if I say the word “magician,” what image pops into your head?

Debbie O’Carroll: You just see somebody in a top hat and cape who’s a man. And the idea of hiring a woman doesn’t even occur.

Rebecca: Faulty chunking leads to this sort of sexist thinking. Relying too much on our mental scripts is also why time speeds up as we age. It can even have fatal consequences.

[Music]

Peter Tse: There was a case of a young man in Vermont who accidentally – well, he, he killed a man. That man was out picking blueberries in southern Vermont.

Rebecca: The defense hired Professor Tse as an expert witness to explain the perceptual error the defendant had made. The defendant was a hunter. And one day he was out hunting bears. His brother had actually killed a bear that very morning.  

Peter Tse: He was primed to see a bear. And when he saw the man who was picking blueberries. That man had black hair. He claims to have perceived the bear and shot into the bush and killed the man. Now, this went on to destroy this guy’s life. And it led to a very strange outcome, which I’ll tell you about. But there’s two mistakes that happened here. One is that his perceptual system incorrectly chunked the black hair of the man into a bear, which it was not. It was not a bear. The second mistake was a cognitive mistake, not a perceptual mistake. He decided to pull the trigger and he didn’t have to pull the trigger. 

Eoin: The hunter saw what he expected to see. Which is something all of us do all the time, whether we’re proofreading an email, evaluating a political candidate, or watching a magic show. 

Peter Tse: So chunking an automatization and seeing things according to the scripts in our head can be very dangerous. It can lead to murder. Or at least in this case, you know, manslaughter, because we’re seeing things as we believe them to be rather than as they are.

Eoin: Professor Tse says the hunter felt so guilty. And that the family of the man he killed sought the death penalty.

Peter Tse: The judge was very wise, almost Solomon-esque and he said, in the end, “You have to go to jail for a year. But for the next – I think it was 20 years – you have to teach other hunters about your mistake.” And so she gave him a path towards redemption, which I found very moving and wise.  

Rebecca: You may be thinking that you would never make a mistake like that. But many psychology studies show us that we actually make perceptual mistakes all the time. The “door” study by Dan Simons is probably the most famous of those studies. 

[Music]

Rebecca: In the study, the researchers have a person ask the study subject for directions. 

Eoin: But then… another person walks by with a door blocking the first one from view.

Rebecca: Hence the name, the door study…

Eoin: And then a third person steps in the first one’s place, and continues asking the directions. 

Rebecca: The subject – which, remember, is the person giving the directions – keeps giving directions. They don’t notice that the person they’re talking to is literally a new person. 

Eoin: The only time they notice is when the new person has a different age, race, or gender.

Rebecca: The study did have slightly different results when they conducted it in Minnesota.

Peter Tse: People would continue to give directions and at the end, they said, did you notice anything? They would say, well, yes, you were an Asian woman and you turned into a Black man. But I didn’t want to say anything. So I say or so, so polite that they kept giving directions anyway. 

No, but but this has really deep implications. I think it means that most of us most of the time are processing the world at the level of category. Now, I think, getting back to time perception, that automatization chunking applies to time as well. So when we’re paying full attention – like a small child – to events, we’ll notice the succession of events and we won’t chunk them. We’ll watch a little ant and see all of its little legs moving. And it’ll seem to last forever because there’s so many little events when an ant is actually walking across the table. 

But for even a probably a 10 year old, it’s just an ant scene. Been there, done that. Done. And so it seems to go by really fast because you’re not paying attention to all the particularities of the temporal stream of events.

Eoin: My mom typically performs for younger children. But she says there’s a lower age range for magic appreciation. Kids under four years old typically don’t get it.

Debbie O’Carroll: Grownups’ perception of who likes magic, they’re thinking toddlers. Toddlers don’t understand magic at all. Everything is magic to them.

Eoin: That’s because they haven’t yet formed expectations about the world. And expectations are what magicians manipulate. 

Rebecca: And as we get older, relying on those expectations too much makes time speed by.

Peter Tse: So what’s the solution to this? I think the solution is to learn to pay attention. Again, like a small child. And this will expand our experience of time. It will give us a much richer experience of the world. 

Rebecca: Professor Tse has two suggestions to help you pay attention: Meditation and minimizing distraction. 

Peter Tse: You know, we have all these weapons of mass destruction in our pockets. And well, you  know, maybe we need to have a daily sort of mini Sabbath where we put those things aside and try to attend to what we’re actually feeling and doing. And the person we’re with.

Rebecca: Professor Tse read us a short poem “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. We can’t play that recording because of rights. But google the poem, it’s really beautiful. In the poem, the narrator watches a grasshopper in her hand wash her face and then fly away. The narrator praises paying attention and being idle. And ends the poem by asking the reader what her plan is for her “one wild and precious life.” 

[Music]

Peter Tse: So I think in this poem, she really gets to the heart of the matter, which is if you zoom your attention in on something very specific like this grasshopper in her hand. It’s incredible. And it links to everything, because everything is connected with everything. So this one little event of the grasshopper washing her face and flying away is connected ultimately with the whole complexity of the universe and our place in it.

[Music]

Eoin: So I was on vacation recently and during that vacation, there wasn’t really much to do because it was during the lockdown. But a caterpillar had gotten stuck in my bedroom window between the screen and the window pane. And my wife and I had a debate and I’ll preface this by saying that my wife, as usual, was correct. My wife and I had a debate over whether the caterpillar would find her way out of the window soon enough.

I thought it would be fine. My wife was concerned because the caterpillar made its way all the way to the top of the window where there is no exit. And so we just kind of sat there watching it for a little while. And I have a little jeweler’s loupe. I think it magnifies things twelve times. And I was able to really get a close look at the bottom side of a caterpillar, which we don’t normally get to look at. We got to experience caterpillar time for a little while. … And the caterpillar did make it with some human intervention.  

Rebecca: For a lot of people slowing down during the coronavirus crisis isn’t an option. But Professor Tse believes that during crises – but also at all times in our lives – paying more attention can be freeing. 

Peter Tse: Everything once you pay attention to it is really quite amazing. And we don’t have to get locked down, even though we’re physically locked down, we don’t have to get locked down in our minds. We could take this lockdown to free our minds and pay attention again. And notice that caterpillar with the red eyes. And ask ourselves: What is it we plan to do with our one wild and precious life? 

[Credits music]

Rebecca: Thank you for listening to our very first episode! We hope you had fun. If you did, subscribe to “Rethinking the News” wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating or comment.

Eoin: And share this series with your friends, family, and coworkers! You can find us at csmonitor.com/time. 

Rebecca:  This series is hosted and produced by me, Rebecca Asoulin. My co-host is Eoin O’Carroll. Editing by Samantha Laine Perfas, Clay Collins, and Noelle Swan. Production support from Jessica Mendoza. Sound design by Noel Flatt, Morgan Anderson, and Ed Blumquist. Jacob Turcotte created the Risset Rhythm for this episode. Our engineers were Tory Silver and Tim Malone. Special thanks to Em Okrepkie, Lindsey McGinnis, and Nate Richards for their feedback on this episode.

This story was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.

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