Chronostasis



To the younger readers out there, the following statement may shock you: in the Dark Ages, clocks were not on phones and their faces contained things other than numbers. Timepieces were, bizarrely, not digital at all. For the vast majority of the existence of clocks, they were mechanical creations of analog wonder.

Clocks contained second hands, minute hands, and hour hands that revolved around a face, which allowed the user to divine the correct time.

If you still have access to an analog clock (or a digital clock that outputs like one), you can become a wizard with the power to stop time.

If you have an analog clock, feel free to give today’s topic a try as we go. If you don’t have one, you can attempt to use the video below.

In your school days, did you ever focus on a test while sitting at a desk, only to wonder how much time you had left to finish? If you shot your gaze from the exam to the clock on the wall, you might have noticed something odd with the second hand. Instead of racing to the next moment, the second hand lingers on its first mark. After a period that seems far too long, it finally turns over. From there, time resumes its normal flow, the second hand tick-tick-ticking away to infinity.

If you have experienced this phenomenon, you encountered chronostasis. From the Greek words for “time” and “standing,” chronostasis occurs when a human looks at a new item and the passage of time in the first moment seems to last longer than it should. We sometimes call this sensation the “stopped-clock illusion” because analog clocks are exceptionally well built to see chronostasis, though it can occur with any new stimulus.

What causes chronostasis?

Obviously, but unfortunately, time isn’t standing still. Also, unfortunately, I fibbed about your ability to become a wizard. The culprit is science, specifically the way our eyes and brains perceive visual stimuli.

The eyes are not only the window to the soul, but they provide the human brain with all the visual information that we end up seeing. Human eyes feature two modes of shifting gaze. The first is called smooth pursuit, which we use when we focus on a moving object. If we watch a train move from left to right and focus on the cars all the while, we’ve smoothly pursued the train. The second type is known as a saccade. In this mode, we rapidly shift our gaze from one stationary object to another.

Saccades cause chronostasis.

A timeline of the sensation and perception of chronostasis - animation by Christian Erdman

Our eyes and brains are fantastic, efficient machines. We’re bombarded with an effectively constant, infinite stream of information from the physical world. If you focus on a scene, our eyes pick up all the info and our brains can allow us to notice everything we see. The caveat is we require time to crunch all the information. Often, we don’t actually need all the information we can see. Think about all the things you see that never register in your consciousness or memory. That’s our brains saving bandwidth.

At some point during our evolution, our brains “realized” that the information provided by the eyes during saccades is actually a bit degraded because the motion is too fast for us to process. Undeterred, the brain “realized” that we don’t actually need all the info we see as we dart from one object to another. In a process called “saccadic masking,” our brains completely disregard the info the eyes perceive during the act of moving from one object to the next. The brain blinds the human during this process!

Here’s where the magic happens.

When the saccade completes and we’re now looking at a new object, the brain once again starts to process visual information. The brain, being the brain, knows that we just blinded ourselves. Constantly encountering small spots of blindness as we shift our gaze would not go over well in a world filled with danger. To fill the period where we received no stimulus, the brain supplies information it believes, through years and years of repeated practice, we should have received during the saccade. We call this process neural antedating. Most of this interlude becomes the info from the new item we see. The result is a subjective perception that the first moment looking at the new item takes longer than it actually does. If the new object is a clock, that second hand will sit in place for a moment!

Our eyes constantly perform saccades. By some estimates, our brains neurally backdate up to 40 minutes of our waking time each day, just so we don’t see all the blurry transitions. Philosophically, do we experience the first second of the clock’s ticking for longer than we actually see it? What do we miss in all those blurry transitions?

One study suggests the stoppled-clock illusion also occurs with our sense of hearing. If a telephone produces a repeating tone and the listener switches back and forth between ears, the listener will overestimate the duration between the tones. Other experiments displayed the phenomenon extends to tactile stimulation. In one such trial, subjects turning on lights with a button were conditioned to experience the light before they pressed the button!

These sorts of incidents hit at the heart of consciousness. We believe we perceive a hard-and-fast reality, but how much of what we experience is formulated by the brain due to the physical laws of the universe and our processing power? These questions pose so many currently unanswerable queries that it might be better just to imagine ourselves as time-stopping wizards!

Further Reading and Exploration


Vision: When The Clock Appears to Stop – Current Biology

Auditory Chronostasis – Current Biology

Human time perception and its illusions – National Library of Medicine

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