Monday, August 24, 2009

The Bad, the Good, and Variability of Time Blindness

"Time is more flexible than most of us think." - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

We know them, we love them, we are them - the time blind are constantly running into trouble for being late or missing assignments, but they also can persist longer than non-blind people at projects or activities (forgetting to eat, sleep, etc.) and achieve things that time-keepers can only dream of.

Who is Time Blind?

Time perception is worse for children than adults, and children diagnosed with ADHD and children diagnosed with specific language impairment, but some variations in time perception occur in healthy people (apparently we are better at perceiving time in the morning compared to the evening...makes sense), and video games like Tetris causes adolescents to lose time (underestimate video game time vs. reading).

Recently there have been a number of research papers providing insight into what causes the perception of time to go awry - many things, it seems, but among them stress (car accidents, catastrophic life events etc.) or distractions, sensory mismatches, and strong positive or negative feelings. Moviemakers recognize the 'when time stood still' phenomena of cataclysmic events - because they slow down the film speed when portraying car accidents, attacks on the battlefield and the like - and that is often what people in crises situation say - everything seemed slowed down or it was like I saw things in slow motion.

What Keeps Time in the Brain?

Competing theories (above) point to either a single site in the brain (for instance the cerebellum, basal ganglia, or dorsal prefrontal cortex) or networks of sensory areas (vision-auditory-somatosensory areas) that dynamically interact with each other. Either idea might explain why some children (and adults of course) are so time-blind. If one system is off (for instance vision) - it throws the whole network 'out-of-sync', explaining why so many different kids (sensory processing, ADHD, speech problems, dyslexia, etc.) struggle with their awareness of time.

Context Matters and Time Blindness

In an interesting landmark study involving 10- and 14-year olds remembering to check a clock to take cupcakes out of the oven in time (they were distracted by playing a videogame while waiting), Ceci and Bronfenbrenner found both groups were better at checking the clock and taking cupcakes out of the oven in the laboratory, when compared to home. Only 1 child failed the task when it was performed in the laboratory, whereas 42% failed when the task was given at home. Reasons for this are open to discussion but might include the special setting of the laboratory, increased distractions at home, etc. The researchers also made the conclusions that the children were more strategic in the laboratory (increased clock checking closer to the time the cupcakes were to come out).

An interesting subsequent study compared young adults to seniors - and found that although young adults were better than older adults if the cupcake / oven test was performed in a laboratory, but interestingly - the performance results were reversed if the experiment were conducted at home. Several ideas have been raised about these results - young adults may have been more familiar with the laboratory conditions, and perhaps the improved results for older adults' time perception at home was the presence of familiar surroundings and familiar supports for remembering and time awareness.

When Time-Blindness is Good --> Flow

But what about the positive side of time blindness? Not uncommon when we're talking to a family about the problems with time blindness in young student, a parent sheepishly admits he or she is also time blind - and that they have to be reminded to eat for instance if they're working on a complex computer project, job, etc. Since Csikszentmihalyi's work with 'flow', additional studies have confirmed that highly intrinsically motivated students check the time less often, are less aware of time, and lose track of time more often when their working on their favored tasks. So there is a positive side of time blindness. Intrinsically-motivated students perceive time as passing more quickly, that's why external commitments slide.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined 'flow' as an optimal experience that people can move into when they are so completely involved that 'nothing seems to matter', self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time is distorted. He proposed that had 4 components: control, attention, curiosity, and intrinsic interest.

All this important to keep in mind if young Johnny or Jane is getting in trouble with time-blindness. Some very bright kids struggle in school because they have powerful interest-driven learning styles - they learn a lot of their own choosing, but if a topic doesn't seem important or appeal to them well....Time blindness can be a clue. Another is a learning style - learning environment mismatch like an inductive learner being taught with exclusively deductive methods.

Photos: stopwatch, cupcake


  1. I'm excited to see a refernence to Mihaly C. When I came across that enchanting name and even more interesting "flow" idea of his it I thought it would never come up again. Thanks for this informative post and the reference.
    (I gave up trying to spell the guy's name but I love the memory aid "Chick sent me high... EEE!"
    One of my commenters said the name derived from a reference to St. Michael.)

  2. Thank you so much for this post! I love the Csikszentmihalyi reference...and you just described my experience perfectly. :)

    Do you know of any studies on what helps kids or adults improve their time sense?

  3. RE: how to help kids / adults with time blindness - different strokes for different folks... if the problem is within the context of sensory processing / visual problems (visual problems seem to cause more time problems than auditory - at least in simple 'time illusion' experiences) - then the answer would be improving the out-of-sync senses - but time blind kids / adults also benefit by having time front-and-center...may be a regular clock or clock (visual clock that sweeps time by in a color wedge).

    Working with a timer that marches out increments of time (people set buzzers on watches for things like this - or egg timers for kids when they are on the computer) - also helps improve time perception.

    Right hemispheric folk might find music a better indicator of time, but if they are too right hemispheric / musical, the music can become a distraction...

  4. Very interesting post.

    Very surprised that music can be helpful for some people, but I suppose it stands to reason for different types of brain. For me, music is the prime cause of time blindness - when I 'get into it', self-consciousness and external awareness disappear, and time can be very distorted.

  5. For strong 'music people' - who get their flow from music, you're is the cause of time blindness. We've also had some musicians tell us that it is impossible to have any music as background music because they are compelled to listen to it whether they like it or not.