Tide and the Clock (Standards for Experienced Duration 1)

My claims in these three posts are that, when we give a mistaken judgement of time in terms of clock time based on our experience, although there is error, it is not an illusion. 

An illusion is a discrepancy between apparent duration and actual duration — but to judge that for experienced duration, one has to make sure one is using the relevant measurement system for experienced duration. The error here is due to the tendency to treat standard clock time as the relevant measurement system. It is not the relevant one; the relevant one, if there is any, is yet to be discovered (it might be something to do with introspection). 

In sum, erroneous judgements of experienced duration are NOT like: bad dancing (being out of rhythm, having an unreliable sense of swing). They like giving the wrong price in kroner when you are basing it on a possibly right price in yen (making a mistaken translation from one quantity to another).


Recently I had a conversation with Marc Wittmann, a psychophysicist/cognitive scientist working on time perception (at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health). The discussion was very engaging and useful, touching on several issues in time perception and time consciousness. I expect to come back to many of them in later posts and work.

This current post is about something I felt we only touched off, and about which I wanted to say more. This is the experience of duration and how one might conceive of it as going wrong. The specific point I want to make is this: the experience of duration may go wrong, but one has to be careful about how one judges it to go wrong. What precisely is it to supposed to do to be right?

In our conversation, Marc told me about the theory he thinks is the best candidate for temporal experience, in particular the experience of duration. This is what might be called the introspective/emotion theory of temporal experience. If I have it right (and Marc can hopefully correct me if not), the theory is as follows.

Our experience of duration is an introspective experience. If is of things inside the experiencer (the subject of experience), not of something out in the world. In particular, as held by Bud Craig, it’s the view that it matches the subject’s emotions — at least, the experience of duration seems to match the progress or succession of emotional states. As Craig puts it in this (publicly available) paper:

[T]he neural substrates responsible for sentience across time are based on the neural representation of the physiological condition of the body, which is consistent with the essence of the James–Lange theory of emotion and Damasio’s ‘somatic marker’ hypothesis (Craig 2002,2009).

Here, I think (drawing also from the conversation with Marc, and a TIMELY conference in Delmenhorst where I saw Craig speak), Craig identifies James-Lange’s ’emotions’ and Damasio’s ‘somatic markers’ to be neural representation of the physiological condition of the body. Further, that our sentience — our awareness or experience — over time is based on emotion.

Whatever it is, though, the view is that our experience of duration is introspective and, if of anything, is of something endogenous — of something within us.

This raised a question for me about the idea that we can have illusions of time — by which I include

illusions of duration, distortions of time, discrepancies between the apparent and actual duration of something.

It seems pretty reasonable that we do have at least illusions of duration. Putting aside even lab-bred illusions (including Eagleman’s drop; search for “We designed an experiment in which “), it’s common to say that in some experiences, a certain duration felt like some other duration, e.g., that conversation felt like an hour rather than the five minutes it was. Or a kid having fun might be surprised that it is tea time already. Once we also more careful experiments, such as Eagleman’s, the evidence seems stacked in favour of the idea that we can have illusions and distortions of time.

But I think that this is the wrong way to think about these judgements of time.

In order to explain my point, I find it helpful to think of the relationship between experienced time and standard clock time with an analogy or metaphor — the relationship between the tide and standard clock time. The following stories (one in this post, one in each of the following posts) illustrate this latter relationship; each is followed by a comment regarding temporal experience.


The Tide and Time

A man is standing before the tide. The tide is lifting and falling back in front of him. It is dragged to this position by the tugging between the Earth and Moon. It is not clear whether or not the tide is coming in and out.

But it is clear that the man does not look happy. He looks at his wristwatch and then at the tide. Finally, annoyed, he says:

“You’re late.”

After a few moments of gentle waves, a fragment of surf forms a torrent of seething foam. Some rises up to form a face directed toward the man. The hiss and hush of the foam breaks in staccato bursts, becoming words.

“Why am I late?” The puzzled face asks.

The man shakes a finger at it.

“You were here yesterday much earlier — and much much earlier the days before that. Fact is, you’ve been getting later and later each day. I have you down as coming at 3pm, and it’s —

6pm. Unbelievable. I had to come down here myself to see it with my own eyes.”

For a moment, the sea stares at the man without saying a word. (All that can be heard is the wind on the sand, distant seagulls, and the throbbing of a vein in the man’s temple).

The face then leans sideways a little, into the surf, as if the sea is studying the man like a baffled terrier. Then, after some moments, it straightens back up again.

The sea says to the man:

“I don’t think you understand how natural processes work.”

“Now, wait on just a second,” says the man, his loose fringe flying back and forth across his brow. “I have a very accurate watch — a VERY accurate watch, and I can tell you that you did, indeed, come in at a much earlier time.”

“In fact –” he warms up to his point — “given the time-scale of your tide, the amount in which you’ve differed is significant. SIGNIFICANT. It’s not like — ” he pauses, thinking “– it’s not like you’re off by a second or two every year, like — like the sun. No. The sun is very reliable. (I am a big fan of the sun).

No, you — We’re talking about being off by hours every twenty-four hours. That’s a serious margin of error.”

He folds his arms, and taps his foot in the sand. (It makes a slight squelchy sound).

There is another pause as the sea does not reply. Finally, the man waves both his hands at the sea:

“Well, can you explain why you are so inaccurate at keeping time?”

Despite being a vast and ancient natural process, the sea has manners. It simply doesn’t know how to politely respond. But, to itself, the sea wonders:

Why on earth would this man believe that my activity should match his watch? Is he serious? That the tide should be judged as accurate or inaccurate by a clock? Why? Because the man can measure it with his clock? Well, isn’t that his business, and not the sea’s?


When oh when will they die out?


Substitute the sea with the processes within us underlying the experience of time. Assume the wristwatch is a well-calibrated clock. Then, taking the italicised paragraph above, we have what might be called the calibration question of temporal experience:

Calibration Question of Temporal Experience

Why believe that the experience of time should match a well-calibrated clock? […] That the experience of time should be judged as accurate or inaccurate by a clock? […] Because the experience of time can be measured with a clock? Well, isn’t that the clock’s business, and not experience’s?

I take this from the question as applied to the sea. I think one can generalise it for any natural process. I assume that temporal experience is as natural and physical as the tide. It’s smaller, more localised, and comes in multiple instances.

That difference shouldn’t matter. Even if it does, we can adjust the metaphor so that the difference disappears. Perhaps the tide is slightly different on different shores, and so we can treat it as broken as experience. One might object that the tide all over the world is linked in a significant way that different instances of temporal experiences never could be linked. But we can adjust that too — have it that the multitude of tides each belong to different bodies — tiny moons in space, say; these would still be tides, still be something repetitive that one might use as ways of measuring time. This is closer to temporal experience, this separation of tides into different worlds.

One might also think that the following difference is important: if, as suggested above, temporal experience is a measure of something internal, the tidal measure is a measure of something external. However, a difference in internality/externality is an irrelevant difference in this context. Their similarity in relation to calibration by a standard clock is what is relevant here. This is why I think I can substitute one for the other in the paragraph above.

There is this difference, however, between tides and temporal experience: Unlike the tide, temporal experience is a possible (I’m assuming, for many readers, even likely) product of evolution. Unlike the tide, it may be something selected and refined. And it may also have a use, a specific use relevant to clocks: to be how we measure time in our lives. If how it does that can go wrong, then, we can talk about experience being inaccurate.

Even so, there is some plausibility in saying that, like the tide,  the relevant selection is natural. And it is just as plausible to hold that it is not a condition of a naturally evolved system that it be evaluated by a socially constructed system. Standard time is a socially constructed system. As such, it is not a condition of our experience of time that it must be evaluated by the standard clock.

Except that we often treat it that way


One thought on “Tide and the Clock (Standards for Experienced Duration 1)

  1. Pingback: A Brief Thought on the Difference between Language and Perception | Time and Illusion

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