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Tide and the Clock (Standards for Experienced Duration 1)

Note: The three posts here inspire my thinking in my more formal paper ‘Against Illusions of Duration‘, published in the anthology The Illusions of Time (which I co-edit with Arstila, Bardon, and Vatakis). However, along with being less formal, these three posts develop the ideas in much more detail than that paper.


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 include 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).

Now, 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.

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. Temporal experience is smaller, more localised, and comes in multiple instances. But that difference shouldn’t matter. Even if it does matter, 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 being 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: the multitude of tides each belong to different bodies — tiny moons in space, say; these are still tides, still 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 or 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, 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 measures 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. It is plausible to hold that there is no condition on a naturally evolved system that it be evaluated by a socially constructed system. By ‘evaluated’ I mean that its accuracy is set by the socially constructed system. Standard time is a socially constructed system. As such, it is plausible that there is no condition on our experience of time that it must be evaluated by standard time.

Except – we often treat it that way

A Quick Thought about What Some People might mean by ‘The Passage of Time’

[This is only a very small note; it is probably obvious. It is just an observation I want to mark in passing].

I’ve just read an article about Linklater’s ‘Boyhood‘ and then listened to a Radio 4 review of it. I look forward to seeing it. It is a film which took twelve years to make, and is a fiction in which the lead character is a boy growing from 6 to 18, played by the same actor of the same ages.

One of the Radio 4 reviewers made the comment that, throughout the film, there was no need to put dates when they went from one year to another. The passage of time was visible simply by the change in look, hair, etc.

I’ve come across a similar comment in other places: that you can observe the passage of time in, e.g., in a town undergoing dramatic change (like Cork City a couple years ago, which I keep moving back to — and just have again). Or seeing it on the face of someone you’ve not met in almost a decade (which is happening a lot at the moment).

In contrast,  there is also the idea of time stopping in certain places: it is always the same in some remote village, or in your family’s neighbour’s house. I go back to my home town — where I am right now — and I look at the tree in the corner of the garden. It’s like time has stopped there; that tree has always been there. But the sense of time stopping isn’t very strong: it is MUCH stronger when I walk up into the forested hills near here and find the same rocks and mossy trees as I did as a kid.

But when I think about people saying things like this about the passage of time and time stopping, I often get puzzled.

I think: but every change — a door banging shut, clicking fingers, a branch moving in a wind — these are all examples of time passing (if it passes). We see it all the time (no pun intended). So what are they talking about being aware of time passing in the examples above — as if these slow changes are evidence of time whereas the perceived changes are not?

I think: but time doesn’t stop in these cases: the mere constant persistence of an unchanging thing is evidence of time passing: that which persists unchanged does so because there is one moment (where it is one way) and then another moment (where it is exactly the same way). If time itself stopped, there would be no such sequence of moments. There would be a last moment, then no more moments — because there would be no time.

It struck me that perhaps I’ve got my thinking about this all wrong. I think ‘time’s passage’ for most people refers to something else other than simply any kind of change: and ‘time stopping’  refers frequently to something else other than time itself.

I think that, in this thinking, time’s passage is this: it is the set of changes which take so long that we can’t experience them directly. We can’t, for example, see these changes or hear them. As such, they are not like waving branches or bits of music which we can experience.

As such, I think the change in time’s passage is metaphysical in the sense that it is not empirical (we don’t observe it). It happens out of view, the signs of it its only evidence.

Oh, and also: when I sit in the grass and look up at a cloud, one example of such passage is in how the cloud seems to change without my noticing it.


1. I can imagine some might provide counter-examples to the idea that we can’t observe such change. One might point out that I even gave examples of observing it: coming back to a home town after years away. In response, I would argue that this is not observing the passage or the change; it’s observing the result. I see the new mobile phone shop where the cafe used be. I see the worn rope-swing in my folks’ garden. I don’t see the shop being replaced or the rope wearing away.

2. Another point is that, except for the amount of time, there is nothing obviously different between such slow changes and the changes we perceive. Less energy would be needed to make the slow changes but they could otherwise be identical, e.g., I might play a phrase of music by hitting each note correctly in sequence, just doing it once a day for each note. It’s the same phrase as one I can hear — such as the opening notes in ‘Swimming’ by Loudon Wainwright — just slower.

3. For my interests, there is another interesting consequence. Philosophers like me hold that the change we perceptually experience is present but not for any special reason. It is present just because presentness refers to what we perceptually experience. If something seems to be directly experienced, it seems to be present. Further, any other use of ‘presentness’ is something derivative — defined in time as ‘here’ or ‘there’ are defined in space. A present event in this sense is either like an event ‘here’ or, in particular relation to experience, is a perceptually experienced event.

If this is right, then the passage of time occurs beyond the present. It is those changes which we cannot wholly experience, and so which cannot be wholly present. It can partly occur within the present, of course, e.g., whatever stage is experienced.

4. So, lastly, if by ‘time’ people often mean ‘the passage of time’, I guess that’s why when they talk about experiencing time, or exploring time — or that time is flexible, they mean something about these unobserved changes. If, say, a film wanted to explore time and the experience of it, it may try to create a sense of such slow changes actually being perceived. For example, you might played recorded film at a high speed. Or you might isolate events in a normally-paced film in such a way that the only change is the kind which goes beyond perceptual experience. As one looks at a cloud change, so there seems to be no change — until, suddenly, you realise: yes, there has been change.