Is Time Itself Brakeless?

October 27, 2014 by Craig Phillips in Uncategorized


The Nature of Time

“I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.” ― Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

One of the overriding themes throughout Kyoko Miyake’s film Brakeless (which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS tonight, October 27 at 10pm [check local listings] and was called a “beautiful, philosophical documentary” in the LA Times) is modern societal pressure around time, an obsession with punctuality and schedules.

The Amagasaki train crash, as the film explores, centered around the driver trying to make up for an 80 second delay, clearly a minimal amount under most circumstances, yet to the stressed-out driver hired by West Japan Railway, it was an unacceptable gap.

Train conductor in training learns to point "go" for Japanese commuter train, from Brakeless

And to the survivors of the accident, the crash itself seemed to exist in suspended animation, an eternity that also existed in a blink. Even though the crash lasted only mere seconds, one survivor remembers distinctly that they “could see the houses sliding away until only blue sky was left.” Does time flow differently at different moments for different people?

For that matter, why does time seem to move fast as we get older? Why do some days seem to crawl while others go too fast? (“Time flies when you’re having fun” is a favorite expression — but does it?) Are there triggers in culture that can affect how we experience the passage of time? Composer Jonathan Berger says “yes,” basically, in “How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time”:

The human brain, we have learned, adjusts and recalibrates temporal perception. Our ability to encode and decode sequential information, to integrate and segregate simultaneous signals, is fundamental to human survival. It allows us to find our place in, and navigate, our physical world. But music also demonstrates that time perception is inherently subjective—and an integral part of our lives. “For the time element in music is single,” wrote Thomas Mann in his novel, The Magic Mountain. “Into a section of mortal time music pours itself, thereby inexpressibly enhancing and ennobling what it fills.”

In recent years, numerous studies have shown how music hijacks our relationship with everyday time. For instance, more drinks are sold in bars when with slow-tempo music, which seems to make the bar a more enjoyable environment, one in which patrons want to linger—and order another round.  Similarly, consumers spend 38 percent more time in the grocery store when the background music is slow. Familiarity is also a factor. Shoppers perceive longer shopping times when they are familiar with the background music in the store, but actually spend more time shopping when the music is novel. Novel music is perceived as more pleasurable, making the time seem to pass quicker, and so shoppers stay in the stores longer than they may imagine.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of musical hijacking is this: In 2004, the Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring deemed Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie the most dangerous music to listen to while driving. It is not so much the distraction, but the substitution of the frenzied tempo of the music that challenges drivers’ normal sense of speed—and the objective cue of the speedometer—and causes them to speed.

Down-slipping time, sweet, swift, and shallow stream,
Here, like a boulder, lies this afternoon
Across your eager flow. So you shall stay,
Deepened and dammed, to let me breathe and be.
–Christopher Morley

Time is Money?

Here’s a surprising element that can distort people’s perception of time: one’s financial situation, having money or not having money. As noted in this piece in The Atlantic, power is not only “the ultimate aphrodisiac,” it may be a time-enhancer.

A new study out of the University of California at Berkeley examined how the perception of time can be distorted by being in a position of power. With the help of hundreds of people, the study’s authors found that the more power people have, the more time they feel they have available in their lives. The researchers primed some subjects for feelings of either power or powerlessness by assigning them to the role of either boss or employee in a mock task of solving brain teasers. The bosses were told they’d be making decisions about which puzzles to solve and how to divvy up the highly-sought-after candy prize at the end of the exercise. Once primed, the subjects filled out surveys that revealed their perceptions of time availability…

The Berkeley study concluded that an increase in the perception of available time leads powerful people to be, on the whole, less stressed. The flip side of this is that the powerless feel the pressure of time’s inexorable march, and research has found that poverty-related concerns like being short on time can lead people to make worse decisions.

Time on Our Minds

From the World Science Festival, “Is the Passage of Time Just an Illusion?”

It’s also important to understand how our brains are wired when it comes to time, as scientists’ perception around that has changed, too. A Discover magazine piece from a few years ago, “How Your Brain Can Control Time,” looks at the differences in the way the brain handles split seconds of time versus how it handles longer stretches of time.

Warren Meck of Duke University argues that the brain measures long stretches of time by producing pulses. But the brain does not then count the pulses in the way a clock does. Instead, Meck suspects, it does something more elegant. It listens to the pulses as if they were music.

Meck first began to develop his musical model when he discovered how to rob rats of their perception of time. He had only to destroy certain clumps of neurons deep inside the brain. Some of these neurons, known as medium spiny neurons, are unlike any other neurons in the brain. Each one is linked to as many as 30,000 other neurons. And those linked neurons can be found throughout the cortex, the outer rind of the brain that handles much of the brain’s most sophisticated information processing. Certain neurons come from regions that handle vision, others from areas that apply rules to what we perceive, and so on. By receiving so many signals from all over the brain, Meck believes, the medium spiny neurons give us a sense of time.

Telling Time (to slow down)

As you’ll see in our upcoming film, Happiness, too, the differences in perception between a fast-paced, technologically obsessed society (i.e., Japan, the USA, where we are stressed out, overwhelmed, and totally exhausted) and a quieter, less-stressed culture (as found in Bhutan) can be striking. While a certain amount of cultural stereotyping can be involved in studying how time is perceived from place to place, some interesting research has been done on the matter, including exploring why time may be a social construct.

You may even find you read this blog post differently – we’d take no offense if you read it in pieces over time – depending on where you are, who you are, what time it was, how old you are, and, well, how much time you (think you) had to read it.

↝“When I was fifteen, all I wanted was to go off to some other world, a place beyond anybody’s reach. A place beyond the flow of time.”
↝“But there’s no place like that in this world.”
↝“Exactly. Which is why I’m living here, in this world where things are continually damaged, where the heart is fickle, where time flows past without a break.” ― Haruki Murakami,
Kafka on the Shore

See more about the film Brakeless.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.