Claudia Hammond: Time Warped at the Royal Institution

My son was due back from a college trip to Brussels this evening, supposedly at about 8 o’clock, but I was just getting ready to go out when he rang and asked me to pick him up as they had got back to the UK early. My wife hadn’t got home from work so I had to go and get him. Driving on the M25 a little after 5 o’clock is not my favourite pastime, nor one of the fastest of activities. I was conscious that I had very little time before it would be too late for me to go to London; although the motorway was quite busy the average speed was probably about 60mph, yet the journey seemed to take at least twice as long as usual. I’d noticed that the clockwise carriageway was heavily congested, so having collected my son I drove back using non-motorway roads. Despite heavy traffic, closed level crossing gates, a multitude of bicycles, and probably because of a blatant disregard of speed limits, I managed to get my son home, grab my ticket, and get to the station just in time to catch the latest train that would get me to the Royal Institution in time.

Time WarpedIn the train I started reading Claudia Hammond’s recent book, Time Warped: unlocking the mysteries of time perception. It soon became apparent that it is one of those excellent books, all too few and far between, that is packed with information yet still holds one’s interest and reads very easily. The train journey to Vauxhall passed almost without my noticing it and it was presumably only because I was subconsciously listening to the train announcements that I was aware when I had to get off the train.

Claudia Hammond voice is very familiar to me as she has been broadcasting on Radio 4 for quite a few years now, for the last seven years presenting All in the Mind. The talk this evening, based on her book and also called Time Warped, was most entertaining, and as interesting as her book – she spoke for 55 minutes, yet it seemed like less.

The talk, as the book, was about one’s perception of time rather than the physics, and there has been some very interesting and enterprising experiments carried out over the years (some of the experimenters also being the experimentees).

Chapters of the book relate to different aspects of our perception of time – 20% of people have spatial visualisation of time, thought to be a form of synaesthesia, and most people in our culture would at least visualise time as moving from left to right. Why does time slow down or speed up when we are bored, scared, or even hot? And why does time speed up when we get older?

Why does our prospective and retrospective judgement disagree, for example as in what the author describes as the ‘Holiday Paradox’, where our holiday seems to pass really quickly whereas on returning home and looking back it seems to have lasted for much longer? Prospectively judging time as it happens involves our attention and our emotion, whereas retrospectively judging it also involves memory, and our memory has been shown to be notoriously poor at accurately recalling when events occurred.

Another interesting thing is that if there is a master clock in our brain that keeps track of time, then no-one has been able to find it. It would appear that there are several mechanisms in different parts of the brain that measure different sorts of time, along with other, hitherto unidentified ways, and the brain assembles our perception of time using all of them.

There has been some recent work done on whether time perception disorders can be linked to other problems such as schizophrenia, ADHD, or dyslexia – and it seems that they almost certainly can. A cognitive neuro-scientist has been able to use time perception tests to correctly identify 70% of cases of ADHD.

There’s a variety of stuff to do and connect to on the Canongate Claudia Hammond Channel, and links to things on the Facebook page.

I still have half the book to read, but I’m happy to go to sleep shortly and read the rest tomorrow – after I have woken up having slept for 7 hours or so yet still being aware that that time has passed. Although now I look at the clock I realise it’s much later than I thought it was – over an hour later in fact. So, a little under 6 hours sleep.

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