World Science Festival: The Psychology of Time

By Cyrus Moulton | June 15, 2009 4:09 pm

Time PanelTime is a constant in modern life. We waste it. We obsessively track it. We continually wonder “where it goes.” We run out of it. We never have enough of it. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, psychologist Daniel Gilbert, and psychologist and neuroscientist Warren Meck from Duke University gathered Saturday evening at the World Science Festival’s “Time the Familiar Stranger” event for a discussion on our most precious commodity. They addressed both complex questions such as the existentialism and relativity of “the present,” and more mundane topics such as why children must continually ask “are we there yet?” on long car trips.

Unlike many panel discussions where participants agreeably confirm others’ views, each participant brought a unique perspective to the subject of time. Sacks focused on his clinical experiences with patients whose perception of time was altered by Tourettes’ Syndrome, Parkinson’s Disease, and other neurological conditions. Meck discussed his experiments on how time influences human and animal behavior. Gilbert was more abstract, addressing time as a psychological construct that influences our mental health.

Moderator Sir Harry Evans, editor at large of The Week, just wanted to know the basics. “Why can’t I remember where I put my cell phone this morning, when I can vividly remember events thirty years ago?” he asked.

The banter and different backgrounds among the participants—as well as a subject that provides ample opportunity for puns and jokes—produced a lively and informative discussion. Evans kept the subject accessible; he immediately demanded clarification if the panelists slipped into jargon, and he always had a ready joke.

Granted, some questions were answered more satisfactorily than others. And the panelists themselves noted that it was odd that a physicist was not included in the discussion. But time is a huge topic to cover in (precisely, of course) an hour and a half.

Alas, if only there had been more time.

Related:
Discoblog’s Full Coverage of the 2009 World Science Festival

Image: Flickr / Courtesy of World Science Festival

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