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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The temporal Doppler effect makes the future seem closer

We’ve all experienced the Doppler effect. This is what causes the change in sound we hear as a siren approaches and then passes us. The sound waves shift in frequency as each crest takes first shorter and shorter and then longer and longer to reach us. According to researchers led by Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago, there is also a ‘temporal Doppler effect’ that makes events in the future seem closer to us than events in the past.

In one set of experiments, the scientists asked volunteers to think ahead a specific amount of time in the future (a week, a month or a year) and to think back the same amount of time in the past. The subjects reported that the future seemed closer than the past. You can try this yourself and see if you agree. We’re about equidistant from Christmas and the end of the school year right now. Which seems closer?

One possible reason for this observation is that we perceive time as moving, just like objects or sounds waves. We feel as if the past is actually receding and the future approaching. If so, our own physical movements might affect that perception. To test this, the researchers submersed undergraduates in a virtual reality environment in which they moved either forward or backward and then asked the students about their time perceptions. Participants felt that the future was closer than the past when they were moving forward but not when moving backward.

This is yet another example of how our brains fool us about the world around us. And of course, I can’t end a story about time without my favorite quotation, usually (but probably wrongly) attributed to Groucho Marx:

Time flies like an arrow,
Fruit flies like a banana.
Thank you, I'll be here all week.

Caruso, E., Van Boven, L., Chin, M., & Ward, A. (2013). The Temporal Doppler Effect: When the Future Feels Closer Than the Past Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612458804.