For those of you following this journey closely, it may be helpful to mention that I took a short break from this blog and the associated journey to visit with my family (celebrate a loved one’s birthday and to say goodbye to loved one at his memorial).
I have returned, albeit with little fanfare, but a renewed commitment to the next legs of the Journey. I am in Providence, RI now, with an eyed return to Boston/Cambridge, then on to Montreal, Toronto, St. Louis, and Chicago in the weeks ahead. The list of eminent and influential Psychologists is long and there is much work to do in preparation for that.
For the moment, and in preparation for my next conversation tomorrow, I am delving deeply into the psychological mechanisms of time. Consider the chess grandmasters and their approach to the game. All of them have phenomenal strategic heuristics for identifying and achieving their aims. During game play all of them will be making the right moves. The winner will make the right moves at the right time: displaying aggressiveness when the right move requires such urgency, and tremendous patience when that move comes at the expense of sacrifice and delay for its success. The timing is critical.
The idea of a timing mechanism and the employment of timing into our understanding of behaviors has some history. There are investigations examining the order of stimuli in their presentation. Investigations into the physiological substrates of timing with everything from the inclusion of short breaks in timing (and how that might affect the encoding of temporal intervals) to treating subjects with amphetamines to give that extra burst of internal speed — potentially clouding the encoding of time. When I think about time I often recall the quasi-experiment from physicist Richard Feynman who tested his ability to count/estimate a duration while still, after running up and down stairs, etc. FYI, Feynman found that his duration estimates were unaffected by physical exertion. Moreover, I think about time from its fundamental nature in our bodies: from heartbeats, to footsteps, to musical rhythms. We move rhythmically, with the ever-present rhumba of our healthy cardiac rates (LUB-dub, LUB-dub), the steady gate and motion of a person’s walk, and, of course, our understanding and encoding of time in music.
Time is fundamental in our actions.
So much so that I wonder at whether some of the earliest behavioral theorists overlooked it as all too obvious. I mean Pavlov, Hull, Skinner, Watson — when these theorists considered how one is conditioned to stimuli the emphasis was on the stimulus, itself. The power and draw of that stimulus relative to one’s internal state. As Hull would note in his early mathematical model of behavior, the power of food to elicit behavior is directly attributable to level of hunger in the actor. For Watson, fear was conditioned in baby Albert because of the level of intensity of a loud and scary sound, it’s proximity to the baby. But where was the time? Hunger is time dependent. The scariness of a sound is directly attributable to its occurrence relative to other events. For the latter, consider the obvious example of when loud, scary sounds are presented in scary movies. Too soon and there is no tension. Too late and the threat will already have been spent.
Time is fundamental in our experience of stimuli.
Alright, so as I delve into time it is clear that what a stimulus means is determined both by the quality of that stimulus but also by when it occurs and how that time is encoded. The right stimulus presented at the right time to produce maximal effect. It is so fundamental that to write it here is almost trite but for the long history of this aspect in behavioral conditioning being overlooked, or, at least, minimized. And when not overlooked, still difficult to understand because what is the timing mechanism? Do we have an internal clock? If so, what is it? Is it the timing of certain neural oscillations in the brain, the steady pounding of our rhumba-ing hearts, the gentle rushing tides of our respiration? Each of these have been manipulated over time and each produces only modest indications of the whole mechanism. What happens if someone lacks that sense of timing? Is there some sort of catastrophic breakdown in their body is the timing is all wrong (see: the Y2K scare of 1999 to understand the concerns in computers if their internal clocks get screwed up. Humans and computers are different, mostly, but computationally we certainly rely on some similar mechanisms).
So tomorrow — assuming good timing (!) — I’ll meet with my fourth interviewee of this Journey and continue this conversation trying to understand our own internal timing mechanisms and the many implications such a system entails.