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Does time really fly when you’re having fun?

January 24, 2011

Caitlin Harpster reports on John Wearden’s talk, ‘The Human Perception of Time’, at the newly opened Physical Center in Hackney.

Physical Center was created and is run by a collection of collaborating artists and curators from around the world, and offers a two-month program of interdisciplinary events free to the public. It was set up in collaboration with Guest Projects, the Hackney-based project space run by artist Yinka Shonibare, which will be the home of the Physical Center until it closes on 24th February. With scheduled performances, talks, film screenings and a concluding international group exhibition, Physical Center aims to bridge the notion of physicality within the arts and biosciences.

On Monday (January 17th) John Wearden, the Chair of the Ethics Committee and Professor of Psychology at Keele University, gave a lecture on the  human perception of time. Wearden began his lecture by openly stating that he did not really understand what he was doing involved in an artistic program like Physical Center, but that he gladly accepted the challenge of opening up creative minds to the more scientific side of life. What is time? he then asked. Wearden gave a watered-down version of humans’ different ways of perceiving time, ways which he termed ‘passage of time’ judgments. A current debate in the field of bioscience concerns the possible existence of an internal clock (or clocks) within humans. This theory corresponds with human behaviour, even if it cannot be scientifically proven. One of the more fascinating topics Wearden covered was about humans feeling time, or ‘feel judgments’. ‘Time flies’ and ‘time is dragging’ are two very popular phrases expressed by humans in explanation of their perception of time. Citing an experiment conducted among Keele students, Wearden showed that retrospectively participants will say that ‘time flew’, but that people never claim that time, at that very moment, is rushing forward, except for perhaps metaphorically. However participants in his experiment did explain how they felt time dragging. Why? What causes these experiences and feelings of time ‘dragging’ or ‘flying’?  These questions drive the continual research of Wearden and his students.

Wearden has also made intriguing discoveries in the area of sensing time. Studies show that humans feel that time is shorter when they see it than when they hear it. When presented with a flash of light for six seconds and presented with a low tone of sound for the same amount of time, on average humans will believe that the low tone lasted twenty to fifty percent longer than the flash of light.

The consummation of the talk was a question and answer session that in turn drew out some of the more artistic interpretations of Wearden’s lecture. The audience discussed time in relation to filmmaking, as well as dreams, music and other cultural influences. One woman in the audience, a filmmaker, outlined filmmaking styles and techniques she had studied which are designed to attract the viewer’s attention and interest. This led to a discussion of the different devices within a film that could make time feel as if it is going faster, i.e. car chases or musical scores. These ideas were then applied to the realm of video art, as opposed to commercial films, since the concepts behind these two types differ greatly. In video art, the element of time is often not even taken into account by the artist. Conversely, time is also frequently the central element of the work (see our post on Christian Marclay’s The Clock). How does the human perception of time change within these two types of film?  Does it change at all?

There was a sense that the audience could have continued picking Professor Wearden’s brain indefinitely if allowed, and the Q&A session was certainly the most important part of the evening, allowing art-lovers in the room to carry on conversations amongst themselves and apply their newly-acquired knowledge to all aspects of their lives. But all in all, everyone seemed to come to a similar conclusion: that humans are horrendously anxious about time, no matter what your perceptions of it; it is these varying perceptions that Professor Wearden is devoted to exploring. Yet when asked if he hoped to find definite answers to his research within his lifetime, Wearden responded, ‘Oh God, I hope not’ – a testament to the enormous complexity of our attitudes to time.

Two further lectures will be held bringing scientific research to an artistic audience at the Physical Center:

Monday 25 January, 6:30PM: ‘Form and the Human Heart’ with Dr Francis Wells

Monday 7 February, 6:30PM: ‘The Union of the Body and Technology’ with Professor Kevin Warwick

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