We see, hear, feel, and think ‘now’. What is experienced is experienced in the present moment. It is a moment in time between a ‘no more’ and a ‘not yet’. You might think that a ‘now’ moment is instantaneous, having no duration, but it is not. If it was, we would not feel any continuity in the flow of time. When we experience the flow of time, we do it through an event that is first anticipated, then experienced, and eventually remembered. For instance, when you are listening to the melody in a song, the ‘experienced moment’ corresponds to what is presently in your mind; including the note played just before and possibly, the note expected to follow immediately after. If you are familiar with the Beatles song ‘Hey Jude’, for instance, the moment you hear ‘Hey’, you cannot help but hear the ‘Jude’ already. The ‘Jude’ is somehow present in your mind even though it is still anticipated in reality. Try it out and mentally sing these two words. As soon as you start with ‘Hey’, you immediately hear ‘Jude’ in your mind. Likewise, when you hear ‘Jude’, the ‘Hey’ is still somehow present in your memory, even though it is no longer sensed 1. The first two words of the Beatles song ‘Hey Jude’ form an ‘experienced moment’ unit that involves both anticipation and memory. What we experience as the present ‘now’ is strongly interwoven with what has just happened before and what is about to happen immediately next 2. This integration of past, present, and future within a ‘now moment’ is what maintains our sense of time continuity. The flow of ‘nows’ provide the basis of our consciousness and time experience. But what is the duration of a present ‘now’?
One clue comes from optical illusions such as Rubin’s Vase/ Face, the Necker Cube, or the Boring’s Old Woman/ Young Woman Illusion (online examples are easy to find). You may have noticed that these ambiguous figures are essentially static images that have two distinct interpretations. During prolonged viewing, the image in each illusion strikingly changes its appearance to the alternative interpretation in a sudden and unavoidable mental switch. A few seconds later, the brain switches back to the original interpretation and that continues alternating regardless of how hard you try to hold to one interpretation over the other. Brain scientists have discovered that the time between mental switches depends on several factors but is on average around 3 seconds long. The brain’s neural circuitry defines the mental switch period and determines its duration. This is similar to a computer screen’s refresh rate. The brain’s refresh rate seems to be 3 seconds long. Every 3 seconds our brain asks ‘what is new?’ and our sense of ‘now’ is updated.
The eminent French experimental psychologist Paul Fraisse summarized the experimental findings of the last few decades and concluded that the present ‘now’ is a duration that has an average value of 2 to 3 seconds 3. It is therefore not by chance that the 3-second interval happens to show up in many areas of our lives. In songs and classical music, musical phrases blend nicely when they are made of musical motifs that are around 2 to 3 seconds long. The famous musical motif in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the one that sounds like fate is knocking on your door, is around 3 seconds long. The same is true for poetry: the average duration of a spoken verse in most languages corresponds to about 3 seconds. This seems to be a universal phenomenon. Try that with any of Shakespeare’s famous sonnets, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Time yourself as you read it aloud and you will find it takes around 3 seconds. Radio stations use 3-second stings as breaks in a radio program. The soothing sound you hear at the startup of a Windows or Apple computer is 3 seconds long. Relaxation breathing takes about 3 seconds. In most cultures, a handshake lasts about 3 seconds. A hug also lasts for around the same duration. Psychologist Dr. Emese Nagy measured the duration of hugs while watching the Beijing Summer Olympics on television. Using video recordings of the event, she analyzed the duration of hugs between athletes from 32 nations in 21 sports. Whether it was with a coach, teammate, or rival, and regardless of gender, the hugs lasted on average about 3 seconds 4. Similar cross-cultural studies have also shown that goodbye waves also last on average about 3 seconds. We seem to go through life experiencing the present in a series of 3-second windows. This time interval forms a basic temporal unit of consciousness that defines our perception of the present. This perception consists of a succession of brief ‘experienced moments’, an endless stream of ‘nows’, each lasting about 3 seconds on average, that roll on relentlessly as they bind the past with the future.
If you are interested to find how fast time runs in your mind, check out this new online Speed of Time Test. By answering a few questions, you will receive a detailed report on how your personality affects your time experience and ways to slow down time.
For more information about this, please check ‘The Power of Time Perception: Control the Speed of Time to Make Every Second Count’ which is now available on:
References & Notes:
- Wittmann M. Moments in time. Front Integr Neurosci. 2011;5:66. doi:10.3389/fnint.2011.00066.
- Lloyd D. Neural correlates of temporality: default mode variability and temporal awareness. Conscious Cogn. 2012;21(2):695-703. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.02.016.
- Fraisse P. Perception and estimation of time. Annu Rev Psychol. 1984;35:1-36. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.35.1.1.
- Nagy E. Sharing the moment: the duration of embraces in humans. J Ethol. 2011;29(2):389-393. doi:10.1007/s10164-010-0260-y.