Why is it that our perception of the passage of time changes around and during periods of sleep? While it is known that there are diurnal variations in time perception1, and that insomniacs have irregular perception of duration of sleep2, this basic question remains.
In an article concerning regular and pathological conscious perception of time, Oliver Sacks speculates that “visual perception might in a very real way be analogous to cinematography, taking in the visual environment in brief, instantaneous, static frames, or ‘stills,’ and then, under normal conditions, fusing these to give visual awareness its usual movements and continuity3.“
This suggests the possibility that our perception of time is a function of our ability to impose a sense of continuity on our own perceptions. Thus, in the absence of external stimuli for this continuity system to act on, we have no mechanism to calculate the passage of time, and instead estimate this variable in a noisy, post-hoc manner.
In any case, the fact that it’s possible to drastically misestimate how long one a bout of sleep has lasted implies that there is something fundamental about the state of consciousness (wakefullness) and judgement of time perception which remains to be understood.
1. Pöppel E, Giedke H. (1970) Diurnal variation of time perception. Psychol Forsch. 34(2):182-98.
2. Knab B, Engel RR. (1988) Perception of waking and sleeping: possible implications for the evaluation of insomnia. Sleep. 11(3):265-72.
3. Sacks, O. (2004) In the River of Consciousness. The New York Review of Books. 51(1):