Perception of the passage of time

Hi all, long time lurker/first time poster… I hope I have the right forum (certainly no factual answer I don’t think, nor does it qualify as a “Great Debate”) but here goes… consider this hypothetical situation:

You have suffered a rare form of brain damage that damages your memory forming ability such that you cannot recall ANYTHING about your life/experiences from more than 10 minutes ago. Let’s further suppose that somehow you are able to hold down some sort of job (assuming one exists that this particular malady would not preclude you from performing)…

QUESTION: Would your workday appear to pass quickly (because as far as you can recall, you’ve only been working for 10 minutes) or would it appear to be virtually interminable (because as far as you’re concerned, you’ve been working for as long as you can remember)? Are there other possibilities? Any comments/opinions that can be backed up by real neuroscience research welcomed!:slight_smile:

I don’t think there can be any simple answer to this. You are talking about profound brain damage, so it would depend on the whole picture. What types of memory are affected? What other impairments are there? Any attempt to do experiments would be confounded by questions like this.

Symptoms like this are encountered in Korsakoff’s Syndrome. For a fascinating case study, read Oliver Sacks, probably in the book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” A characteristic symptom, as I recall, is anterograde amnesia, in which memories exist up to a certain point, but nothing new is put into long-term declarative memory. These people are typically apathetic. They do retain procedural memory, so they can learn to do a repetitive task and know the way to their room, even though they cannot describe anything recent that happened more than a few minutes ago.

Sacks talks about a patient who keeps being shocked at his image in a mirror, because he remembers being a young man but nothing about the subsequent few decades of his life.

My sense of this riddle is, “The tree makes no noise when it falls.” i.e., I’m not aware of the passage of time, because I don’t remember any events by which I could measure it. When five o’clock rolls around, it feels just like 4:50, because that’s the last memory I have. But it also feels just like 3:50, or 1:50, or 7:50, or five days ago, or ninety days ago.

Everything ALWAYS feels like the last ten minutes. An odd kind of philosophical Tartarus!

(“Hm… ‘Old Peter’ doesn’t work. I must have masturbated some time in the last few hours. Whatever that means.”)

What you’re describing is a combination of retrograde (loss of existing memory) and anterograde (inability to form new memory) amnesia. It’s pretty rare for them to occur together, but it does happen. Clive Wearing is a famous case; however, his “span” is much shorter than you describe–only about 30 seconds, but it might be instructive. He describes it as having just awakened for the first time, each time.

Given that, I’m not sure such an amnesiac could really have any sort of perspective on a longer period of time. They simply have nothing to contrast it with. It wouldn’t seem interminable, as such, because people have a timekeeping sense of some sort, but they presumably wouldn’t really have any conception of a workday, either. I imagine it would be more like, “I just woke up, and I’m going to do this for a few minutes. [RESET] I just woke up, and I’m going to do this for a few minutes. [RESET]…” Near the end of the day, they’d feel whatever level of physical fatigue you’d expect from a day at the task, but not feel that they’d been doing the task for very long. Just…"[RESET] I just woke up, but I’m kind of tired, and going for a ride in a car. [RESET] I just woke up, and I’m eating something. It’s tasty. [RESET]…"

In other words, for Clive Wearing at least, it’s sort of the opposite of what Trinopus said: Everything always feels like the first ten minutes (or 30 seconds, in Wearing’s case).