“Forever is composed of nows.”
- Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1999
“The present is the only thing that has no end.”
- Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), Publication, date
Your life is composed of a series of “nows”, joined up. That’s what the present is. The time being. In the zone. Here and now. The moments wedged between the past and the future. In which case, let me ask a philosophical question. What is now? And another: how long does it last?
The first is a puzzle, but the second sounds like a crazy question. Yet there is an answer: about three seconds. And this is not just speculation.
Studies of humans show that we act, think and talk in bursts, on average, of around three seconds before we move on to the next thing. As well, people experience now, or the time allocated by our perceptual apparatus to the subjective moment, in this particular time-chunk.
Three seconds is how long your mind concentrates, fusing the things it attends to into an experience before it flits on to an associated, or simply the next, topic. This is what’s known as the psychological present—what your mind creates as it’s “now episode”.
This problem—of thinking about now, and its tempo, has become more than a preoccupation for me. I feel like I’m being persecuted by this “three seconds” idea. It’s everywhere. This period represents an easy way to mark out, for example, rhythms in speech and music. Then there are handshakes, goodbye waves, moments spent gazing at someone across a café, and the period it takes to get up from your chair and start walking away—these all seem to cluster at around three seconds. While each thought, act, or burst of speech may take a little less or more time, they nonetheless average out at the three second mark.
Once they found this out, a couple of scientists began to wonder, is this a human attribute, reflecting us, and our advanced brain and cognitive architecture? Is it the particular way we humans are wired, neurologically speaking? Or is it shared with other species?
A lovely but obscure study which fell into the category of one of those that almost no-one refers to or cites, but is very useful, was published almost three decades ago. In order to shed light on this question, in 1994, scientists Geoffrey Gerstner and Louis Goldberg filmed 27 animals in several zoos over 1,100 hours. It took them a year and a half to do the fieldwork. Species videoed included deer, okapis, giraffes, kangaroos, raccoons, and pandas.
The intrepid researchers looked at behaviors such as micro-level activities like ear twitching, licking, yawning, and tail swatting through to bigger functional goings-on such as urinating and defecating, to gross motor movements such as standing still, head-moving, and walking. They calculated event durations from the observations, dividing the time the animals allocated to different behaviors by the number of events.
Across the species, the mean event intervals for almost everything they did were between 1.6 and 4.8 seconds. That’s an average of, you guessed it, three seconds.
Hold on, you might ask: is this the same for big, lumbering creatures, and smaller, nimble ones? Well, even though giraffes are larger and raccoons are smaller creatures, and it might be expected that they would operate on different time scales, there was no significant statistical difference between them.
Observations of non-mammals such as fish and reptiles, whose operations follow a similar pattern, suggest this phenomenon is part of the formation of even more ancient, ancestral brains. It seems to be some kind of universal across the animal kingdom.
It is strangely compelling, then, and the accumulated evidence points to this, that different species operate on average on the principle of the three second range. As this manifests as a ubiquitous property of behavior, the feeling of a “three second now” in humans is therefore quite possibly hard-wired into us, based on a deep mechanism in the brain.
Yet there are some caveats. That’s not how people experience the present. Human movement, thinking, and language, all seem to be entirely a matter of choice—the exercise of our free will. They seem to us to flow rather than appear in three second bits. The world we perceive, and our views of ourselves, don’t seem to be episodic, comprised of multitudes of three second bursts, serially, one after another. But even if we do have considerable agency, and therefore when we reflect on how we see time we don’t see ourselves that way, we cannot ignore that three second chunks are in fact structured into us by our evolutionary past. We, and other animals, seem built for three seconds, happening step-by-step, over time.
Which brings us, funnily enough, to hugs. If you are a frequent hugger (and most of us are, at some stage, when we weren’t in a pandemic; especially pre-pubescents, and women more than men), are you predestined to follow the three-second rule? Researcher Emese Nagy, who wondered about the duration of this particular behavior, noticed that there’s always a whole lot of hugging going on at the Olympic Games. She reviewed video recordings of 21 sports at the 2008 Beijing summer games, and had an independent observer look at 188 hugs. Did I say researchers of this type, whether observing animals or humans, were intrepid?
And you guessed it again: hugs lasted on average three seconds, although there were some minor durational discrepancies between recipients: athletes embraced their coaches for the longest period, but they allocated less time to their teammates, and even less when it came time to hug their opponents. Funny that.
It’s not just researchers that hold to this view, either. In popular culture there’s quite a lot of support for events of this length. People believe that’s the span for a goldfish’s memory, post-orgasmic subsiding, and a human dream. It’s the time you have to pick up a piece of dropped food before it’s contaminated. None of these have any scientific basis, but they perpetuate as urban myths. And they all follow the three second rule, even though they are made up guestimates.
This is all very interesting, you might say. But what’s the message here? Two points.
Other research suggests that sometimes you need to break the three second rule. For instance, if you want to get a big benefit from hugs, make them last as long as you can. Research has shown that to raise your levels of oxytocin, commonly known as the “bonding hormone”, a neuropeptide linked to intimacy and childbirth, you need a longer embrace—perhaps 20 seconds.
And my second point allows us to finish on a sobering note. Let’s say you are lucky enough to live to a little over 95 years. You will have used up a billion three-second lots. That’s quite a lot of handshakes, fleeting thoughts, blown noses, getting-up from your chair, or glancings at a pretty young thing. Depending on how old you are now, though, you will have a great deal less time at your disposal than a billion.
So use your remaining three second lots wisely. You’ll be surprised by how quickly they add up—and ebb away.
Gerstner, Geoffrey E, Goldberg, Louis J (1994). Evidence of a time constant associated with movement patterns in six mammalian species. Ethology and Sociobiology I5 (4): I8 I-205.
Nagy, Emese (2011). Sharing the moment: the duration of embraces in humans. Journal of Ethology 29 (2): 389-393.