The Time Trials

or, "Time is a Wish your Brain Makes"

Welcome one and all to THE TIME TRIALS!

I'm your host and reigning champ, Cici, the sentient Caesium atom!

Our competitors will undergo a series of challenges to determine who is the best at the true tests of time!

So without further ado, it's time for the first trial!

I: Long-Term Time

Our first challenger is nearly 200,000 years old! You know them, you love them, it's... HOMO SAPIENS!

Homo Sapien


Inventing the Sundial, Hourglass, Watch, etc.
Having consciousness (allegedly).

And facing off against them, the single celled spectre, the eukaryote that will carry YOU out... SYNECHOCOCCUS RF-1!

Synechococcus RF-1

0.8 - 1.5 µm

Living in water. Being small.

For our first challenge, our brave competitors will have to face a task as old as time.

...Well, that's not true, but at least as old as the Earth!

The first Time Trial is...

Measure the passing of 24 hours!

As soon as it's high noon, when the sun is at the peak of the sky, shout it out!

Synechococcus, you just uh... expell a bunch of nitrogen.

Ready? Flip the switch to get started!

And don't forget to turn it off when you've seen enough to judge who did best!

Wow they did a great job! But after all, it is a pretty easy challenge. Especially for me! I don't know if you know, but a second is actually defined as yours truly cycling between energy states 9,192,631,770 times!

So this is pretty easy, I just have to count to 794,243,384,928,000. Here let me start...

Hey... wait a second.

First of all, that pun was intended, and second of all, something's not quite right...

Oh! I forgot! It isn't fair if you both can just use the sun to measure 24 hours! You have to do it on your own!

I know, we'll just put you in a room with the lights always on! Give it a shot now!

Well... wow.

Within just 3 days, the human thinks it's high noon when it's the dead of night. I'd understand that from the little Synechococcus, but it's actually doing a better job than the human!

I mean... don't they both have Circadian Rhythms that pretty accurately measure 24 hours? I thought this would be a home run for them...

I guess when they don't have something to sync up their rythms they're not very accurate...

> Aschoff et al. (1967). Desynchronization of human circadian rhythms

> Grobbelaar et al. (1986) Dinitrogen-fixing endogenous rhythm in synechococcus RF-1

Well, wait, hold on, this is ridiculous!

Oh my gosh! The Human Brain! You're sentient to!

Uh... yeah. I'm a little anthropomorphic too but that's not the point.

This is such an unrealistic scenario. When am I ever going to be locked in a room with the lights on for days? And even if I was, I'd have a watch with me, or my phone.

Well Brainy... can I call you Brainy?

I like to go by Brianne.

Brainy, what do you think happens to time in a room with the lights on? Do you think it slows down?

Well... no... but...

Ugh fine, I'm not very good at keeping track of long periods of time. Happy?

But I'm really good at other things! Want to see me do some math or compose some music?

Well folks looks like the human lost that one pretty handily! I'd hate to be them right now!

Let's see how they do on an easier challenge!

II: Medium-Term Time

All right Homo Sapien, let's see how you face off against... a Film Camera!



Citizen Kane. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Okay! I get it! I'm not great at time, but really?

An inanimate object??

That I invented???

...Do they even still look like that?

For this challenge, we'll be playing a little red light/green light! Our friend below follows the mouse. When it's moving, it's a green circle, and when it's still, it's a red square. Try it out!

Challengers, the trial is pretty simple: just tell us how long the marker was a red square, and how long it was a green circle!

Um... Brainy? What's... going on with your timeline there? I mean... what does it even mean for something to grow vertically? How can something take up more time without taking up the timeline?

Well... I mean, it's all just sort of related to memory, how long events feel. It's called time dilation. You know, my memories don't all take up the same amount of space, and they're not stored sequentially like a film camera, they're just kind of all over the place.

Don't get me wrong, I know when things happened in time, I just can't like... replay my memories like a movie all the way through.

So to be honest, thinking about time as a line isn't a good way to think about it for me.

I'm just going to pretend you didn't even say that. But can you at least explain why it keeps changing so much?

Well... when the thingy is moving, I'm focusing on it, so I'm not really paying attention to time. And when it's not moving, it's really boring, so it just feels like it's taking forever. You know, like, "time flies when you're having fun!"

Chaston & Kingstone (2004). Time estimation: The effect of cortically mediated attention

Okay, okay, but then what about when the ball moves super fast?

Well when it moves too fast then it kind of freaks me out, and my adrenaline rushes, and I pay a ton of attention to it. So it seems like it must've happened for a long time.

Stetson et al. (2007). Does time really slow down during a frightening event?

Oh, okay, well that kind of makes sense. When you're in a dangerous situation, you're able to perceive faster and perceive more.

It's sort of like if your mind normally recorded at 60 frames per second, but when you're in danger, it speeds up to 140 frames per second. Then, when you play it back, it's like in slow-mo, and so it seems longer. That's pretty cool Brainy!

Well... haha um... actually I don't think it's like that. When I'm in danger I don't actually perceive any faster or better. I perceive like regular. I'm just paying more attention to a bunch of things, so it feels like it's longer. But it's not like I get slow-mo vision.

Stetson et al. (2007).


Wait, wait, wait. Let me see if I'm getting this straight: time moves fast when you're paying attention to something, but when you're paying too much attention it gets slow again?? That doesn't make any sense!!!

Yeah, I mean, it's pretty all over the place. Like, I said boring things seem like they take forever, right? But also, when I think about other boring things, like my commute to work, over time they start to feel like they don't take any time at all!

It seems like any change in all the different parts of me and how I'm feeling can affect my sense of time in a whole bunch of ways. And if there's anything I don't understand, it's my feelings. Therapy helps though!

But, look on the bright side! This is actually pretty cool and useful! I mean, think about it: I'm not fixed to a rhythm, time changes with how I'm feeling! I learn more from dangerous moments. I can spend less energy focusing on the accuracy of time and instead spend it focusing on other things. And painfully boring days don't take up as much of my memory as exciting moments, like seeing a movie with friends! Isn't that so cool?


III: Short-Term Time

Well, Human, I could only find one more challenge that's any easier for you to try.

All you have to do is say which order these two things happened in . Got it? You don't even have to challenge anyone. You just have to be able to do it.

We're going to hit this drum. And you tell me in which order you SAW the drum get hit and HEARD the drum get hit.

I'll even give you a hint, the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second. The speed of sound is only 343 meters per second. You know how you see thunder much sooner than you hear it?

I'll stand all the way back here, so the drum's about 12 feet away from you. And just to make sure you get this right I'll just say it: you should heard the sound roughly 10 milliseconds after the light. I've done the research, even you can perceive that difference in time.

Ready? Let's hit the drum a few times.

> Hirsh & Sherrick (1961) Perceived order in different sense modalities.

Brainy... Just for once...

Okay, wait, this one's actually a really clever thing I can do!

Okay so, walk me through this. First of all, what is the gray and purple stuff?

So the top line on the surface is my objective sensation. That's the information that actually hits my eyes and ears. And the light hits my eyes first, because, like you said, it's much faster than sound.

Which is great. But...?

Well, my subjective perception is what I actually feel. Not what hits my eyes and ears, but what happens when those sense organs and I (the brain) finish processing it. That's the big purple nebulous area.

So why on Earth is your perception not only different from your sensation, but literally changing each time?

Okay, so, think about it. When you hit the drum, it causes both the light and the sound. So at the origin, the space where you make contact, they happen at the same time. But, by the time they reach my senses, there's a delay, because they travel at different speeds.

Right. That's how space and time works, information takes time to travel. It's why the stars we see in the sky lightyears away may be completely different than what we see. And on a smaller scale it's why if I throw you a banana, the banana that I throw is slightly more green than the one you end up catching. The same with light and sound. I think we're on the same page for once. Though I think I may also just be getting hungry.

Well here's the cool part. Each time you hit the drum, the delay between the sight and sound is really short, and roughly the same each time. So if you keep on doing it, I get to thinking...

Oh no. I hate when you get to thinking.

If the delay is always the same amount, then that probably means something caused them both. And each time it happens I get more and more sure about my hunch, like, statistically! And so, if I'm pretty sure they were caused by the same thing, well, why don't I just try to imagine they happened at the same time?

...Excuse me?

I just start to squish them closer together, so they eventually happen at the same time in my mind, because I'm pretty darn sure they originally happened at the same time to begin with. And then it becomes one, single, easy to digest concept. It's called Lag Adaptation!

> Fujisaki et al. (2004). Recalibration of audiovisual simultaneity.

Okay, okay, okay, let me get this straight. You're using the statistics of time to imagine causality?


Even though to really prove objectively that the drum hit caused the light and sound, you'd have to be both where you are and at the drum at the same time? You're pretending you can be in more than one place at the same time?

Sure! For small delays, I basically get to pretend like the rules of space and time don't apply. They're so complicated anyway, this way of thinking about the world is so much easier To be honest, I don't even really have to think about it, it just happens! And it hasn't let me down yet!

Brainy... how... far does this lag adaptation thing go exactly?

Well, that depends. Do you have a light switch in here?

Yes, but it's a bit wonky, there's delay from when you hit the switch and it turns on- oh no.

Oh yes.

Okay, but the delay on the light is 100 milliseconds. That's ten times more than the drum! And they also don't happen at the same place or time, there's no single origin like last time!

You raise good points! But that's never stopped me before!

Okay, whew, well you didn't manage to squish them to be the same moment this time.

True, but that's only because the lag is 100 milliseconds, you were right that that's starting to get too big for even me. Still I was able to squish the moments together by about 45 milliseconds! A new personal record!

I... I need to sit down, I think I'm going to be ill.

But Cici this is important! 45 Milliseconds is actually almost three times as much as I'd be able to do with the drum. Can you guess why?

To spite me?

It's because i wasn't using two of my senses, it was my sense and my action! I do lag adaptation with my senses to know about causality in the world. But more important is knowing that I have causality with the world; Learning how my actions cause change in the world!

Picture it Cici: I've been walking around in the wilderness and I keep stepping on twigs and making them snap. I need to be able to figure out whether any snap was caused by my action, or a lion following me. So I squish together my steps and the sounds so I feel it was me who did it. The same goes for any time where a sense is caused by my actions, that's probably why I'm so good at all kinds of fine motor skills, I can smush my actions and the feedback into one thing!

Well... if you're done... I think I have my verdict for how you placed in The Time Trials...

Wait, wait, hold on, can you maybe get a new lightbulb in there? If the delay is shorter I know I can manage to smush them together, I know it! Please, please, please?

...Fine. Do your little squishing thing.

EXCUSE ME?! Brainy, did I just see what I think I saw???

Oops, sorry, sorry! I was still used to the old delay! This new one is much faster... I mean, look, I did end up getting there! I just needed to take a few tries to re-adjust to the new, shorter delay!

Brainy... did you just honestly... 'Perceive'... that the light somehow turned on before you flipped the switch?

um... yeah... it's called a Temporal Order Rersal

> Stetson et al. (2006). Motor-sensory recalibration leads to an illusory reversal of action and sensation.

I thought this worked like time dilation, where you just change the size of time! What happened to squishing, smushing, whatever!! Squishing never reversed the order of things!!! That was the whole point of this challenge! This is the 'Fill in Your Name Here' of challenges! You literally just sensed two things happen in order, and then decided to flip them around! I mean, do you think the light somehow knew you were going to press it? Or that you pressed the button and then the light travelled back in time??

Yeah... I guess squishing isn't really the right way to think about it, hm... I guess it's more like... moving? Editing?

But I mean... remember that time I was able to use the sun to know what time it was? Pretty cool right? Now how do you think I did then at the whole time trials thing?

Well at least I got a medal. Cici said they actually don't usually make a last place medal. But she was really insistant on it.

But you know what? Who really cares about these elaborate challenges? I mean, I get it, I'm not good at keeping track of time, but I've invented things to help me with that! I might not be good at remembering how long things took, but that's because I'm busy focusing on what things mean. And sure, sometimes you can trick my time perception, but that's just the kryptonite to my statistics super power!

My time might not be objectively correct, but it's subjectively awesome. I get to time lapse boring moments and slow down important ones with time dilation. And with lag adaptation I get to break space-time and live in a simpler version of the world that makes more sense.

And as for keeping track of time, that's what the alarm on my phone is for. I'd like to see that bacteria wake up before sunrise to make their flight, hahaha.

Goodnight y'all!

Well shoot.

Thanks everyone for checking this out! It was made in about a week for the explorables jam! Go check them out!

And if you liked this, check out my other doodle brains like 1 Monkey!

If you're the paper reading type, definitely check out the papers mentioned, they're all really clever, especially the one where they show that you don't perceive better when you're in a frightening situation. It's a really clever procedure! And also the temporal order reversal paper, their theories about the implications of temporal order reversals are really interesting, and we still don't fully know!

And if you really like to read papers, check out the thesis I wrote that inspired this lil page! It's about time perception and poses the question: if you can do a temporal order reversal between an action and a perception, could you manage to trick yourself into reversing the order of two actions you chose to make? The answer? Maybe! And the implications about time and our consciousness perception are wild! Science! Whoo!