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How Animals Perceive Time

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By: burgundy bug

A cheetah gazes off into the distance

Source: Cheetah | Penelope Peru Photography

Ah, time. It’s a not-so-universal measurement that seems so innate to us humans that we structure our entire lives around it with alarm clocks, planners, shared digital calendars.

Although the importance we place on time is a very manmade construct – leaving some to questions whether it’s even real all together – the passage of time still remains a fact of life: the sun rises, the sunsets; we are born, we grow, we eventually die.

So, without a watch or a notification to ping them before important events, how do animals perceive time?

For Some Animals, The World Moves in Slow-Motion

Source: For Some Animals, The World Moves in Slow-Motion | SciShow

“We’ll never be able to get inside another animal’s head and feel what it’s like for them to experience a day,” said SciShow host Olivia Gordon. “But whether that day is a blip or an eternity probably has something to do with how they process sensory information.”

When sensory information is processed slowly, it’s theorized that time feels fast and vice versa, Gordon explains in the video.

If you think about, slower processing would mean more things are happening within a span of time faster than the animal can perceive it. So it’d look a bit choppy, like a stop-motion GIF, and the fine-tune details of motion would be left out. Suddenly you’re in front of you an animal and *blink* you’re a few feet away.

On the flip side, faster processing would mean the animal is perceiving more things happening within a span of time, so it would seem like you’re moving a lot slower to them.

“At a basic level, biologists think the broad strokes can be explained by good ol’ evolution and whether it’s beneficial for a creature to have sensory processing or not,” she says. “Fast processing is great, but it’s also metabolically expensive. After all, you have to feed the brain and it may or may not make sense to have supersonic processing if you’re a giant leatherback turtle.”

Citing a 2013 Animal Behaviour study, Gordon discusses how scientists assessed the role body-mass plays in animal time perception.

The researchers used the response time to critical flicker fusion, the lowest frequency of flashing light, to gain a sense of how fast or slow animals perceived the flashes.

Then, the response times were compared to the metabolic rate and body mass of the animals to see if there was a correlation between time perception, metabolism, and body weight.

The data was collected from studies on 34 species including:

  • Humans
  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Goldfish
  • Guinea pigs
  • Brown rats
  • Blacknose sharks
  • European eels
  • Loggerhead sea turtles
  • Tiger salamanders
  • Tokay geckos
  • Iguanas
  • Short-eared owls
  • Rock doves

As the researchers had theorized, CFF processing was faster in those with speedy metabolisms and slower in heavier animals.

Whether the animals were native to low-light or high-light environments also affected CFF processing, but the correlation between metabolism and body weight was still observed among both groups.

“Our results show that, while there is considerable variability in the ability to resolve temporally dynamic visual information across vertebrates, body mass and metabolic rate act as important general constraints on this ability,” the study concludes.

This conclusion loops back to the idea that larger animals need to move around less, so possessing the ability to process time faster is unnecessary. There’s no need to devote energy to something that isn’t vital to their survival.

How Do Pets Perceive Time

A fluffy white dog excitedly peeks its head out of a car window

Source: Too Cute to Be True | Penelope Peru Photography

Due to cohabiting with humans, pets have a pretty keen sense of their owner’s behavior: research shows that dogs can read human facial expressions and can even pick up habits like emotional eating.

Read: How Dogs Think, Feel, and Communicate

The Burgundy Zine

Dogs are likely to adjust to their owner’s schedule, for example, sleeping or waking together. If you tend to serve your dog around the same time you eat every day, they’ll pick up on that and their tummies will begin grumbling when your does.

While furry roommates may adjust to their owner’s schedules, that doesn’t affect how they perceive time. According to the results of the Animal Behaviour study, dogs perceive time 30 percent slower than humans do and cats perceive time a just a tad faster than humans, based on the CFF response speeds (dogs’ CFF response times are higher, so time seems slower).

Guinea pigs perceive time slightly faster than us, and gekkos perceive it significantly faster. Meanwhile, goldfish slightly lag behind human time perception and iguanas perceive time about as slow as dogs do.

In Conclusion

Call it an illusion, rival with your alarm clock, or live by your planner. Regardless of how humans value time, it’s a facet of life that every animal species has to contend with.

However, every animal perceives time differently, and the biological tie to time perception supports the idea that larger animals visually process time slower, making days seem much shorter.

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burgundy bug


A cynical optimist and mad scientist undercover, burgundy bug is the editor, graphic designer, webmaster, social media manager, and primary photographer for The Burgundy Zine. Entangled in a web of curiosity, burgundy bug’s work embodies a wide variety of topics including: neuroscience, psychology, ecology, biology, cannabis, reviews, fashion, entertainment, and politics. You can learn more about working with burgundy bug by visiting her portfolio website: burgundybug.com

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