Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience

Perceiving the passing of time

During moments of life-threatening danger, people often experience time to pass more slowly. Psychological data suggest that these experiences lie on a continuum: for instance, subjects exposed to mildly frightening stimuli over-estimate the durations of those stimuli relative to controls. This paper focuses on two conceptual puzzles which such experiences raise. The first puzzle is how (if at all) we can reconcile such experiences with what I have elsewhere argued is our naïve conception of temporal experience, according to which experience unfolds over a period of objective time in a way that precisely matches the apparent duration of the period it presents. The second puzzle is how to understand the connection between subjective temporal expansion and our evolved response to danger. For whilst many theorists (and subjects) claim that such experiences aid survival, it is obscure why an illusion of temporal expansion would have any survival benefit. By identifying the key assumptions behind these puzzles, I develop an account of duration perception which resolves both puzzles. The first puzzle is resolved by denying that we perceive duration relative to an objective, subject-independent measure. The second puzzle is resolved by claiming that our subjective measure of time is in itself relevant to our survival. Drawing on Locke’s remarks on duration perception I offer one natural candidate proposal: we perceive duration relative to our conscious mental activity.