Carla Merino-Rajme is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She works in philosophy of mind and metaphysics. Before coming to Chapel Hill, she was an assistant professor of philosophy at Arizona State University and a Bersoff Fellow at New York University. She received a PhD in philosophy from Princeton University and an MA in philosophy of science from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Our everyday experiences of duration are as phenomenologically rich as they are puzzling.
Consider, for instance, the following familiar situation. You are at a fun party, having a wonderful time, when your friend comes by to tell you it’s time to go. You glance at your watch to realize that even though it feels like the party has just started, you have been there for over three hours. In situations like this, you become prey to a perceptual illusion: some feature—in this case, the party’s duration—presents itself as being in a way that it is not, i.e., as being much shorter than it really is.
Upon reflection, there is something puzzling about this type of experience. Consider a few of the words uttered as you chat with your friends during the party. While the party as a whole feels like it is going by really fast, you do not hear these words as going so quickly that you can hardly understand what is being said. Rather, you experience them as being uttered at a normal speed. Or consider seeing a glass of wine fall to the carpet. Here again you do not see the glass rushing to the floor at a super-high speed. Contrast your experiences of these short-lived events with those you would have if you were under the effects of certain drugs. In this latter case, the people around you would indeed sound like they were talking far more quickly than the usual. A lamp post approached at a normal walking pace would seem to be flying by. This is not what happens, neither during the party nor during its converse case—one in which you would experience, for instance, an especially boring movie as lasting twice as much time as it actually takes. During the movie you do not hear the characters as speaking in-cre-di-bly slow-ly. Instead, as in the party, you hear them speaking normally. Yet, you feel like the whole movie is taking twice as long as it actually takes.
Your experiences of duration in cases like the fun party (or the boring movie) are thus characterized by a part/whole incongruity: while the duration of the long-lived, composite event is experienced as lasting much less (or more) time than it is indeed lasting, the party’s (or the movie’s) short-lived events—precisely those in which you get to experience the whole, long-lived event—are experienced as having their usual durations.
One possible, though obviously bad way of accounting for this feature of your temporal phenomenology would be to claim that you passed out for most of the party’s duration. Had you become unconscious for two-thirds of the party, putting together the felt durations of the short-lived events that you did experience would yield a felt duration for the whole party of roughly a third of its actual duration. But of course this is not what normally happens during fun parties!
Another possible explanation would be to claim that even though you were not passed out for two-thirds of the party, you forgot that much. This, together with the claim that your experience of the duration of the whole party is the result of adding up the felt durations of the short-lived events that you remember, would serve to account for the part/whole incongruity of your temporal experience. This proposal, however, is also unacceptable: while you forgot some of the short-lived events you experienced, you did not forget more than you would have forgotten if the party had been less fun. But had the party been less fun, its felt duration would have been much longer!
In previous work, I have aimed at accounting for this and other puzzling features of your temporal phenomenology. The main idea is to model your mind as a subjective clock whose pulses or ‘ticks’ are the very short-lived events you experience as you undergo a long-lived event. I call these ‘ticks’ experienced quanta. Think of an experienced quantum as a short-lived chunk of the situation encountered that is experienced as forming a temporally extended but tightly unified whole. Think of hearing the ‘ding-dong’ of a doorbell. Each sound takes place, and is heard as taking place, at a distinct time; yet, the whole doorbell is heard as composing a tight unity. Contrast the unity of this auditory experience with the lack of unity in hearing an entire concert. Or contrast the feeling of unity in seeing a dancer perform a gracious leap with the lack of unity in seeing the movements of the same dancer as she performs an hour-long, solo dance. Or contrast the felt unity in experiencing a finger sliding along your arm with the lack of it in experiencing an hour-long massage. Or, contrast the feeling of unity in hearing a few words uttered during the party with the lack of unity in hearing all the words said during a forty-minute conversation. The felt unity found in the first cases is what characterizes experienced quanta. (An experienced quantum can be seen as a way of making sense of the notion of the specious present, first introduced by E. R. Clay, and made famous by William James).
Think of your mind as constantly ‘counting’ quanta, where to ‘count’ is to form an impression of numerosity. In order to ‘count’ a quantum, however, it is not enough to experience it; you also need to notice it. Your experience of the duration of a long-lived event at any given time can then be thought of as the quanta ‘counted’ during that long-lived event—that is, as the impression you form of the number of experienced quanta that you have noticed up until that time. This can explain why, despite undergoing no duration illusions in experiencing the party’s short-lived events, you feel like the fun party flew by. Since during the party much of your attention is captured by its fun events, you have less attention free to notice the feeling of unity that characterizes the quanta that you keep experiencing. As a result, you ‘undercount’ them: you form an impression of fewer quanta than the one you would have formed during a less exciting event. Conversely, as your attention drifts away from a boring movie, your quanta become more salient. As a result, you notice more of them and, hence, you form an impression of a larger count: you ‘overcount’ them. This can explain why the movie feels longer than an equally long, but less boring one.
Unlike models of time perception found within the psychological literature that appeal to subpersonal clocks—and that, for this very reason, cannot offer a full-blown characterization of what goes on at the phenomenological, experiential level—this model offers a way of characterizing the complexity of our experience of duration and of its corresponding illusions qua the experiential phenomena that they are.