JAMES: Principles of Psychology [Ch. XV, XX]

Ch. XV – The Perception of Time

The late 19th century American philosopher and psychologist, William James, once wrote, “A day full of excitement, with no pause, is said to pass ‘ere we know it.’ On the contrary, a day full of waiting, of unsatisfied desire for change, will seem a small eternity.” In this lecture, we will discuss James’ thoughts upon the perception of time, as outlined in Chapter 15 of his Principles of Psychology.

James coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the nature of the human mind. Previously, psychologists described consciousness as a chain, but James remarks that if consciousness were like a chain of separate sensations and images, we would be incapable of acquiring knowledge. “The moment each sensation ceased, it would be gone forever. Each of those momentary states would be our whole being.”

James’ innovative concept has important consequences for our interpretation of time. “The knowledge of some other part of the stream, past or future, near or remote, is always mixed in with our knowledge of the present thing.” In other words, James asserts that our perception of the present moment is actually our perception of a duration of time, varying from a few seconds to no more than a minute.

To clarify his idea, James uses the following example. He asserts that the current state of consciousness can be expressed as a sequence such as A, B, C, D – with A and B representing just past sensations, C representing a current sensation, and D representing the expectation of an imminent sensation. The next thought in the stream of consciousness will be the sequence B, C, D, E – with the lingering past sensations sequentially fading away and being replaced by new sensations. “These lingerings of old objects, these incomings of new, are the germs of memory and expectation. They give that continuity to consciousness without which it could not be called a stream.”

James next turns to the relation between our awareness of change and our perception of the flow of time. As alluded to in the opening of this video, a day full of excitement seems to pass quickly, while a day full of boredom passes very slowly. The more we are aware of change, the faster time seems to flow. This fact leads to some very interesting suppositions.

“Suppose we were able, within the length of a second, to note 10,000 events distinctly, instead of barely 10, as now; if our life were then destined to hold the same number of impressions, it might be 1000 times as short. We should live less than a month, and personally know nothing of the change of seasons. If born in winter, we should believe in summer as we now believe in the heats of the Carboniferous era. The motions of organic beings would be so slow to our senses as to be inferred, not seen. The sun would stand still in the sky, the moon be almost free from change, and so on. But now reverse the hypothesis and suppose a being to get only one 1000th part of the sensations that we get in a given time, and consequently to live 1000 times as long. Winters and summers will be to him like quarters of an hour. Mushrooms and the swifter-growing plants will shoot into being so rapidly as to appear instantaneous creations; annual shrubs will rise and fall from the earth like restlessly boiling-water springs; the motions of animals will be as invisible as are to us the movements of bullets and cannon-balls; the sun will scour through the sky like a meteor, leaving a fiery trail behind him.”

To conclude, our consciousness is like a stream that contains past, present, and future sensations at any given moment. Our perception of the flow of time is dependent upon the flow of our consciousness, our awareness of change. I hope that you enjoyed watching this video. Please like, comment, and subscribe. Farewell.

“The knowledge of some other part of the stream, past or future, near or remote, is always mixed in with our knowledge of the present thing.”

“Let any one try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs. Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”

“The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration. It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation of succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and from the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it.”

“Awareness of change is thus the condition on which our perception of time’s flow depends”

“In general, a time filled with varied and interesting experiences seems short in passing, but long as we look back. On the other hand, a tract of time empty of experiences seems long in passing, but in retrospect short. A week of travel and sight-seeing may subtend an angle more like three weeks in the memory; and a month of sickness hardly yields more memories than a day. The length in retrospect depends obviously on the multitudinousness of the memories which the time affords. Many objects, events, changes, many subdivisions, immediately widen the view as we look back. Emptiness, monotony, familiarity, make it shrivel up.”

“A day full of excitement, with no pause, is said to pass ‘ere we know it.’ On the contrary, a day full of waiting, of unsatisfied desire for change, will seem a small eternity. Tædium, ennui, Langweile, boredom, are words for which, probably, every language known to man has its equivalent. It comes about whenever, from the relative emptiness of content of a tract of time, we grow attentive to the passage of the time itself. Expecting, and being ready for, a new impression to succeed; when it fails to come, we get an empty time instead of it; and such experiences, ceaselessly renewed, make us most formidably aware of the extent of the mere time itself. Close your eyes and simply wait to hear somebody tell you that a minute has elapsed. The full length of your leisure with it seems incredible. You engulf yourself into its bowels as into those of that interminable first week of an ocean voyage, and find yourself wondering that history can have overcome many such periods in its course. All because you attend so closely to the mere feeling of the time per se, and because your attention to that is susceptible of such fine-grained successive subdivision. The odiousness of the whole experience comes from its insipidity; for stimulation is the indispensable requisite for pleasure in an experience, and the feeling of bare time is the least stimulating experience we can have.”

“There is at every moment a cumulation of brain-processes overlapping each other, of which the fainter ones are the dying phases of processes which but shortly previous were active in a maximal degree.”

“Suppose we were able, within the length of a second, to note 10,000 events distinctly, instead of barely 10, as now; if our life were then destined to hold the same number of impressions, it might be 1000 times as short. We should live less than a month, and personally know nothing of the change of seasons. If born in winter, we should believe in summer as we now believe in the heats of the Carboniferous era. The motions of organic beings would be so slow to our senses as to be inferred, not seen. The sun would stand still in the sky, the moon be almost free from change, and so on. But now reverse the hypothesis and suppose a being to get only one 1000th part of the sensations that we get in a given time, and consequently to live 1000 times as long. Winters and summers will be to him like quarters of an hour. Mushrooms and the swifter-growing plants will shoot into being so rapidly as to appear instantaneous creations; annual shrubs will rise and fall from the earth like restlessly boiling-water springs; the motions of animals will be as invisible as are to us the movements of bullets and cannon-balls; the sun will scour through the sky like a meteor, leaving a fiery trail behind him, etc. That such imaginary cases (barring the superhuman longevity) may be realized somewhere in the animal kingdom, it would be rash to deny.”

“Let me sum up, now, by saying that we are constantly conscious of a certain duration — the specious present — varying in length from a few seconds to probably not more than a minute, and that this duration (with its content perceived as having one part earlier and the other part later) is the original intuition of time. Longer times are conceived by adding, shorter ones by dividing, portions of this vaguely bounded unit, and are habitually thought by us symbolically. Kant’s notion of an intuition of objective time as an infinite necessary continuum has nothing to support it. The cause of the intuition which we really have cannot be the duration of our brain-processes or our mental changes. That duration is rather the object of the intuition which, being realized at every moment of such duration, must be due to a permanently present cause. This cause — probably the simultaneous presence of brain-processes of different phase-fluctuates; and hence a certain range of variation in the amount of the intuition, and in its subdivisibility, accrues.”

Chapter XX – The Perception of Space
In Chapter 20, James remarks that we perceive volume through all five of our sense organs; but we perceive space exclusively through the retina, skin, and joints. The mind then imposes order on the chaos of spatial sensations through discrimination. Movements aid the mind in the process of discrimination because of a peculiar stimulating quality that motion has on sensory organs.

“The imagined aggregate of positions occupied by all the actual or possible, moving or stationary, things which we know, is our notion of ‘real’ space — a very incomplete and vague conception in all minds.”

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