redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
From time immemorial, humans have grappled to understand the slippery notion of time, often drawing on familiar metaphors of physical motion such as “time flies” or “time marches on.” When Einstein published his paper on special relativity in 1905, he forever fused the notions of space and time into a single, mind-boggling, yet mathematically elegant, concept known as spacetime. Now, new research on the human brain suggests our movements through physical space are directly connected with how our brains perceive time.
“It seemed to us that psychological scientists have neglected the important fact that, in everyday experience, people don´t evaluate the past and the future in exactly the same way,” explained lead author Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
In recent years, an array of new research in the field spatial perception has revealed humans feel closer to objects they are moving towards than objects they are moving away from — an illusion that holds true even when the distance of the objects remains exactly the same. Since our perception of time is so closely related to our experience of space, Caruso and his team predicted this same basic principle would hold true for time as well, a phenomenon his team dubbed the ℠temporal Doppler effect.´
By performing a simple survey of people at a train station, the scientists found individuals tended to perceive future times one month or one year away as closer to the present than times one month or one year in the past.
In a separate part of the experiment conducted online, the team found people who completed an Internet survey one week before Valentine´s Day perceived the holiday as being closer to the present than people who were surveyed one week after the holiday.
While these results point to a striking similarity in how we perceive space and time, the team wanted to explore whether there was a direct connection between the two. To do this, they conducted yet another experiment using virtual reality technology.
The team equipped college students with a head-mounted display that placed them in a virtual scene where a two-lane road was lined on both sides with trees, streetlamps and buildings. For half of the students, the virtual environment was made to give them the sensation they were moving forward toward a large fountain at the end of the road. The other half was given the virtual experience of moving backwards, away from the fountain.
Following the virtual reality portion of the experiment, the participants were asked how far away a specific date felt to them — one that was three weeks in the future and another three weeks in the past. The students who had just had the virtual experience of moving forward toward the fountain reported the future felt closer to the past, whereas the students who had moved away from the fountain did not feel the future was closer than the past.
For the second group of students, the mismatch between their physical movement (backward) and the chronological direction of the event (future) in question tended to eliminate the ℠temporal Doppler effect´ — a finding Caruso and his colleagues argue confirms a direct link between our perceptions of time and space. In short, we feel closer to the future because we feel like we´re moving toward it just like the students felt like they were moving physically closer to the fountain.
The researchers also suspect this perceptual alignment isn´t mere coincidence but rather that it serves an important practical function. The laws of physics (as we currently understand them) prevent us from going back in time and changing the past. However, we can directly influence our future. Thus the feeling that future events are closer may provide us with the psychological kick in the pants we need to prepare ourselves to deal with those events.
According to Caruso, “this research is important because the idea of psychological distance is central to theory and research in every subfield of psychology — social, developmental, cognitive, clinical — yet there has been an implicit assumption that distance to the past is the same as distance to the future.”
Caruso also says he and his team would like to continue their research by exploring how the temporal Doppler effect influences our day-to-day lives. For example, is a functional temporal Doppler effect associated with healthy psychological function? Can a weakened sense of the effect lead to problems with depression and an inability to escape from the past? Do people who do not experience the temporal Doppler effect have a hard time making plans and decisions about the future?
“Our work suggests instead that there is a systematic difference in people´s perceptions of distance to the past and the future,” Caruso concluded.