Bonjour family, friends, and strangers of the virtual world!
I would be lying if I said I was always on time to things back in the states, but somehow, in some odd fourth-dimensional way, “Parisian Time” has hit me hard. I’m always fifteen minutes late everywhere, unless I’m going to class (in which case I’m only a minute late), and if I’m on time it’s because I ran for my life to catch the train.
Jokes on me aside, people go about things real slowly here in Paris (even Monday mornings on the Metro). At the local boulangerie (bakery) I could be the only person in the store but the barista will still take nine minutes (yes – I’ve counted) to make my café au lait (espresso with milk).
Why is that? Why do I want to function so much faster back at home than I do in Paris? Why are some Parisians gallivanting about their day without concern for the time? What causes the difference in how we perceive time? Why can’t people just give me my coffee already!
Interval time, the type of time that we use to perceive, estimate, and discriminate how long something has been going on for (the kind of time we use to estimate how long it’s going to take to get to class), is controlled by parts of our brain known as the striatum and cerebellum (Coull et al., 2011). The striatum is a region of the brain responsible for producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s associated with one of our brain’s reward pathway (the striatum is what gets activated when I feel like I’ve done something great – like the satisfaction that comes from being on time). The cerebellum has many functions, but is most commonly known for playing a role in motor control and cognitive functions that also influence time (i.e., consciousness, self-awareness, and emotion). Science aside, what does interval time have to do with why my midtown Starbucks barista makes my low-fat, sugar-free iced caramel macchiato faster then the lady at the boulangerie making my simple café au lait?
Interestingly enough, there’s been a recent study by Pollatos et al. on how interoceptive processes affect our perception of time. Interoceptive processes are the systems in our bodies that allow us to sense and perceive the physiological conditions that are occurring within our bodies. An example of an interoceptive process is someone paying attention to how quickly his or her own heart is beating.
The study wanted to particularly explore how one’s perspective of their physiological responses during an emotional state (like how you stop breathing for a second when you kiss that special someone on the top of the Eiffel Tower – nope, haven’t done it yet, still waiting to meet that perfect Parisian guy who also speaks English) affected their perception of time.
The study hypothesized that time contraction (perceiving less duration of time than has actually passed) and time dilation (perceiving more time than has actually passed) will be more pronounced in groups that were focused on their internal bodily processes as opposed to those focused on external stimuli.
It’s believed that when you’re experiencing emotions related to fear, you experience time dilation, whereas experiences that make you laugh lead to perceived time contraction (Buhusi and Meck 2005). Pollatos et al. took 254 participants, showed them a documentary (served as a control that wouldn’t elicit emotions), a German horror movie (to elicit prolonged fear), and Ice Age III (for comical effects), and separated the subjects into two groups. One was asked to focus on their bodily processes while watching the films (the interoceptive focus group) and the other was asked to focus on the film so they could answer a questionnaire on the content of the films (the exteroceptive focus group). All participants were subsequently asked to answer the same survey to which Pollatos et al. used the retrospective time paradigm, a way to measure a subject’s judgment of time without them knowing about it (sneaky…).
They ended up finding that subjects who focused on their internal physiological responses experienced an accentuated subjective time perception. Subjects who focused on their bodily functions while watching scared watching the horror film, exhibited greater time dilation to those subjects who did not pay attention to their bodily functions. Similarly, subjects who focused on their interoceptive processes while watching the comedy exhibited greater time contraction to those subjections who focused extrospectively. Because the hypothesis was supported, Pollatos et al. concluded that the more aware a person is of ongoing bodily functions, the more influential an emotional experience is on a subjective time experience.
Perhaps, Parisians are having a great time. Why wouldn’t they be? The wine is great, the baguette’s are fresh, the architecture is phenomenal, and the paintings in some of the museums are breathtaking! So, the feeling of joy may elicit time contraction, and they’re always walking everywhere making it seem like they’re at least slightly aware of their bodily functions, exacerbating their time contraction. With them thinking that time is passing slowly, of course they’re bound to take their time and be late to things! I exaggerate in my analogy, but it’s a thought!
Lastly, the study addresses that one of the things they want to focus on in the future is what factor age plays in subjective time distortion. Ironically, now that I think about it, the 20-something year old barista at the Le Pain Quotidien around the corner made my cappuccino a lot faster than the 40-something year old lady at the local boulangerie.
Or maybe the 40-something year old lady has more to worry about or more on her mind that causes stress and induces fear making her less aware of her bodily functions, which would cause time dilation. This might explain why it takes her 9 minutes to make my café au lait instead of the normal three. Or, she could just not like me.
Buhusi CV, Meck WH (2005) What makes us tick? Functional and neural mechanisms of interval timing. Nat Rev Neurosci 6: 755–765.
Coull JT, Cheng R, Meck WH (2011) Neuroanatomical and neurochemical substrates of timing: a review. Neuropsychopharmacology. 36, 3-25.
Kreibig SD (2010) Autonomic nervous system activity in emotion: a review. Biol Psychol 84: 394–421.
Pollatos O, Laubrock J, Wittmann M (2013) Introceptive Focus Shapes the Perception of Time. PLOS One. 9: 86934