Tag Archives: Illusion of Duration

The Windowsill Clock (Standards for Experienced Duration 2)

Previous: Time and Tide

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.


The real problem the man has with the sea’s timekeeping is not with the sea. It is with his ex-colleague, who uses the sea to judge time.

His colleague recently retired and has a house on a cliff near the sea. From the house, there is a clear view of the tide as it comes in. For his colleague, a second is a single beat of the tide — a single instance of waves lifting then falling back. A minute is how long the tide takes to spread over the long stretch of sand; an hour a multiple of these. The man’s colleague has marked these on the windowsill facing the sea, and so can measure any needed time.

“Those are not seconds, or minutes, or hours”, says the man.

“Yes they are.”

“No they’re not — seconds, minutes, hours are defined by standard time. This does not correspond to standard time. It is misleading and unreliable.”

“It is accurate and reliable for me. I live by the beach. I can check it any time. The tide is a better means of measuring time than the standard clock.”

“But you’re not measuring CLOCK time,” the man says in frustration.

“You’re right….” the other is thoughtful for a moment. “Well, ok, so I shouldn’t call it four O’CLOCK. I should call it, maybe, four O’TIDE. This acknowledges that I am not measuring time by the conventional clock. I’m measuring it by the sea. How about that?”

“No no no — nonsense. You’ll confuse a lot of people.”

“Well, who am I going to confuse, other than you? I live at the edge of the sea, on my own. I am not trying to measure something by the standards of other people.”

“You’ll confuse anyone — anyone who asks you what time it is.”

“Only if they assume I am measuring by a standard clock. But I’m not. And if they ASK me, they’ll see I couldn’t possibly be measuring it by a standard clock. I don’t consult one; at best, I look toward the tide (it’s visible anywhere in this town) and then give them an answer. They’ll know then that what I call an ‘hour’ obviously cannot be a clock’s hour.

If they notice my looking at the beach, they might guess it is a certain period in which that tide moves across the sand.

Once that’s understood, then that what I call an ‘hour’ doesn’t correspond to the ‘hour’ measured on your wrist should be unsurprising.”

The man sighs. “But that’s just the thing you see. You use the concept of an hour to describe a particular passage of the tide. But an hour is something defined by the motion of a watch. If you insist on calling a certain period of tidal motion an hour, you’ll be inaccurate. It’ll be different to the watch, which sets the standard.”

The other thinks about that as well.

“Well, first, I’m guessing that ‘hour’, ‘second’, and the like aren’t so tied to the current clock. They were there before it. But the current clock is so ubiquitous that we automatically think of that. Most people mean by ‘hour’ a unit of standard clock time.

And, yes, I even used that standard to originally pick out a period of tide to be an hour. A long time ago, when I still had a watch, I noticed that when the tide crossed a particular patch of sand, my watch’s hour hand completed a whole circuit on its face. When I lost that watch, I had no other standard clock. So, initially, I used the passage as a substitute.

But over time, I didn’t. I just use it to measure time. It suits me very well out here.”

He scratches his head. “But don’t you see how inaccurate that is? The tide and clock needn’t match. You’re using an uncalibrated process to makes measurements in terms of a standard.”

“…I am. Except….well, as Wittgenstein said “There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one metre long, nor that it is not one metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris.” Similarly, there is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one Tidal Hour long, nor that it is not one Tidal Hour long, and that is the time it takes that tide to cross that stretch of beach. It sets the standard, not gets measured by it.

I am not calibrating what I use to measure time to a standard because I am using the standard itself. The standard is the tide’s motion. If I was making a clock from it, I would calibrate it with what I’m using to measure.

But yes I am not using the standard of the standard clock — of GMT. But I don’t see this as worse than what you use. You just calibrate it differently — by your wristwatch, your phone, the six ‘pips’ on the radio or, if you can get at them, vibrating caesium atoms. In fact, it is more like I’m using the caesium atoms themselves to measure time.

But, again, I take your point. I link the term ‘hour’ to a process of the tide based on a number of instances in which the tide coincided with the clock. I may be accurate in using the word ‘hour’ afterwards because I am judging it by the tide. But I am not accurate if I am judging it by your clock.

Most people will ask me for the time according to the clock. They will take my answer as being a judgement based on the clock, and act accordingly. I can see them getting quite mad at me if they do. Although it hasn’t happened yet. Typically, they don’t see me looking at my watch, so I expect they know that I’m not using standard time to get the result.

But — again, yes, it is a problem to use hours, etc. I myself have sometimes slipped into the habit of forgetting that I am not using something set by a standard clock. How could I be judging by a standard clock? I don’t have one, or anything that calibrated to one.

So, maybe I should call it something else.”

“Yes.” says the man. “It only causes confusion otherwise.”

“It does.” She is thoughtful again. “However, it also causes confusion if you assume one measurement is correct over another in measuring events. And is also causes confusion to ask someone to judge the time or duration and then insist that an answer is only appropriate — and so right or wrong — if it is in terms of an irrelevant standard.

Such as when you come up to my house and ask me what time it is or how long something lasts. You ask me ‘how long does it seem to be?’ and then you only accept an answer in terms of clock time — clock seconds, clock hours, etc.

What can I say except answer in terms of clock time, even though that is no measure of accuracy for what I am using?”

After a few more seconds of thought, the other frowns. Abruptly, she says: “I think the rules of your questioning are exacerbating the problem.

The problem has got nothing to do with how accurate my measurements are. I’m using the tide to measure time. My answer is to be judged, if at all, by the tide. It might be accurate; it might not.

You’re asking me to use it, however, to make judgement in terms of clock time. Then you’re calling my judgement inaccurate — a mistaken judgement of duration — when it fails to match the clock time.

Yet, except for that brief association in the past, I’m not using clock time. (I’m using clock terminology, of course, but that’s because you’re asking me to answer in clock terminology).

Given I’m not using it to make my judgement: Why oh why do you expect my answer to match the clock?

Why do you even expect it to be judged by a clock.

There’s no clock out here. The only means of measurement is the tide.”


My thinking is this:

If you ask someone to judge the length of a certain experience, to give a value to a certain experience of time, then

If they give an answer which is incorrect according to standard clock time, either

(a) What they are using to measure time has gone wrong — if what they are using to measure time is supposed to be calibrated to standard time, i.e., it is a standard clock.

(b) What they are using to measure time is not obviously gone wrong — if what they are using measure time is not supposed to be calibrated to standard time, i.e., it is not a standard clock.

Experience corresponds to (b). It is not a standard clock.

Experience should not be treated as if it is a standard clock. Whatever it is that prompts us to describe our experience in terms of clock time, it has nothing to do with the possibility that our experience is either calibrated to a clock and/or should be evaluated in terms of clock time.

So how can we work with the different measures? And how should we understand them?


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