ILLUSTRATION BY LEIGH WELLS
How to control the subjective experience of time.
At the end of the gallery, in one long case, were two dozen ballerinas in various states of motion or repose. One dancer was examining the sole of her right foot; another was putting on her stocking; a third stood with her right leg forward and her hands behind her head. Arabesque decant—tilted forward on one foot, arms outstretched, like a child imitating an airplane. Arabesque devant—upright on left leg, right leg pointed forward, left arm overhead. Their motion was frozen yet still fluid; I felt as though I had wandered into a rehearsal and the dancers had paused just long enough for me to appreciate the mechanics of their grace. At one point a group of young men wandered through whom I also took to be dancers. Their instructor said, “Quick, which one are you right now?” and they each picked out a bronze to emulate— the man nearest me with his right leg forward and his hands on his hips, elbows winged backward. “I like that you picked that one, John,” the instructor said.
Time flies when you’re having fun. It can slow in moments of duress, during a car crash or fall from a roof, or distort under the influence of intoxicants, moving faster or slower depending on the agent. There are myriad lesser-known ways to bend time too, and scientists are discovering more all the time. For instance, consider the two sculptures by Degas above and below this paragraph.
They belong to the series I was viewing, which demonstrates the dance positions across the range of exertion; the ballerina on the left is at rest and the ballerina on the right is executing the third movement of the great arabesque. The sculptures (and the images of them) aren’t moving, but the ballerinas depicted seem to be—and that, it turns out, is enough to alter your perception of time.
In a study published in 2011, Sylvie Droit-Volet, a neuropsychologist at Université Blaise Pascal, in Clermont-Ferrand, France, and three co-authors showed images of the two ballerinas to a group of volunteers. The experiment was what’s known as a bisection task. First, on a computer screen, each subject was shown a neutral image lasting either 0.4 seconds or 1.6 seconds; through repeated showings, the subjects were trained to recognize those two intervals of time, to get a feel for what each is like. Then one or the other ballerina image appeared onscreen for some duration in between those two intervals; after each viewing, the subject pressed a key to indicate whether the duration of the ballerina felt more like the short interval or the long one. The results were consistent: the ballerina en arabesque, the more dynamic of the two figures, seemed to last longer on screen than it actually did.
That makes a certain sense. Related studies have revealed a link between time perception and motion. A circle or triangle that moves quickly across your computer monitor will seem to last longer on screen than a stationary object does; the faster the shapes move, the bigger the distortion. But the Degas sculptures aren’t moving—they merely suggest movement. Typically, duration distortions arise because of the way you perceive certain physical properties of the stimulus. If you observe a light that blinks every tenth of a second and simultaneously hear a series of beeps at a slightly slower rate—every fifteenth of a second, say—the light will seem to you to blink more slowly than it does, in time with the beep. That’s a function of the way our neurons are wired; many temporal illusions are actually audiovisual illusions. But with Degas there’s no time-altering property—no motion—to be perceived. That property is entirely manufactured by, and in, the viewer—reactivated in your memory, perhaps even reenacted. That simply viewing a Degas can bend time in this way suggests a great deal about how and why our internal clocks work as they do.
One of the richest veins in temporal-perception research is on the effect of emotion on cognition, and Droit-Volet has conducted a number of compelling studies that explore the relationship. In a recent series of experiments, her subjects viewed a series of images of faces, each of which was neutral or expressed a basic emotion, such as happiness or anger. Each image lasted onscreen for anywhere from 0.4 seconds to 1.6 seconds, and the viewer was asked to say whether the image lasted for a “short” or a “long” time—that is, closer to one of the two standard durations they’d been trained beforehand to recognize. Consistently, viewers reported that happy faces seemed to last longer than neutral ones, and both angry and fearful faces seemed to last longer still. (The angry faces lasted even longer to 3-year-old children, Droit-Volet found.)
The key ingredient seems to be a physiological response called arousal, which isn’t what you might think. In experimental psychology, “arousal” refers to the degree to which the body is preparing itself to act in some manner. It’s measured through heart rate and the skin’s electrical conductivity; sometimes subjects are asked to rate their own arousal in comparison to images of faces or puppet figures. Arousal can be thought of as the physiological expression of one’s emotions or, perhaps, as a precursor of physical action; in practice there may be little difference. By standard measures, anger is the most arousing emotion, for viewer and angry person alike, followed by fear, then happiness, then sadness. Arousal is thought to accelerate our internal metronome, causing more ticks than usual to accumulate in a given interval, thereby making emotionally laden images seem to last longer than others of equal duration. In Droit-Volet’s study, sad faces were deemed to last longer than neutral faces but not to the same degree as happy ones did…