The Temporal Doppler Effect: Why the Future Feels so Close and the Past so Distant

time

The Temporal Doppler Effect was illustrated in a recent study by Caruso and colleagues (2013). The Temporal Doppler Effect suggests that the future feels closer than the past.

In their study, they proved that Valentine’s Day seemed closer when it was one week in the future than when it was one week in the past. The researchers have suggested two main explanations for the Temporal Doppler Effect to happen, and these are considered below.

1. The future gets priority because we can change it

When we have a deadline, we tend to feel the future as closer and approaching. When the future seems close, we get psychologically prepared (and aroused) to approach, avoid and cope with it. Our action plans become more concrete when we are faced with a deadline.

In this way, it serves a functional purpose because we get more ‘functional’ when we feel that the future is closer than it really is. If we, somehow, postpone a deadline, we can increase the psychological distance between the self and the deadline, and then we can make the future feel less close (and less stressful). People tend to use more resources to future events than past events.

This is probably because we have a direct impact on the future unlike the past, and preparing ourselves for the future is therefore more important for us, thus we mobilize our resources to the future to a greater extent than the past.

2. We feel approaching objects as closer than receding objects

This explanation suggests that the temporal asymmetry (meaning that the future feels closer than the past) is analogous to our movement in time – in space. Since time is an abstract measure, our experience and understanding of time depends on our movement in space.

Indeed, it has been found that illusory sensations of forward movement prompts thoughts about the future, and illusory sensations of backward movement prompts thoughts about the past.

This might sound strange, but in fact, it has been illustrated in a neuropsychological study as well, which has shown a common neural activity to exist when we move through space and move through time.

Therefore, the movement in time (i.e. our perception of time) is highly dependent on our movement in space.Interestingly, the temporal asymmetry shares characteristics with our visual and auditory perception.

For example, people tend to perceive objects as closer when the objects physically move towards them. The same is true for our perception of sounds.

The Doppler Effect is that people overestimate the proximity of approaching sounds and underestimate the proximity of receding sounds, when the sounds, in fact, are equally distant. Therefore, the perception of time shows similarity with both visual and auditory perception.

All together, it seems like we prioritize approaching objects in general (just like the future), and that approaching objects are perceived as more important (or threatening) than receding objects even though they are equally distant. Our psychological preparation and arousal for future events might be seen as a way for us to handle this threat efficiently.

Image: Hartwig HKD