Hugs, goodbye waves, infants’ bouts of babbling, breathing, nervous system functions… all average around three seconds.
Multiple studies among humans and other species point to 3 seconds as one of the most fundamental units of life and what defines our feeling of “now.”
Ever wondered how long a hug lasts? The quick answer is about 3 seconds, according to a new study of the post-competition embraces of Olympic athletes. But the long answer is more profound. A hug lasts about as much time as many other human actions and neurological processes, which supports a hypothesis that we go through life perceiving the present in a series of 3-second windows.
Crosscultural studies dating back to 1911 have shown that people tend to operate in 3-second bursts. Goodbye waves, musical phrases, and infants’ bouts of babbling and gesturing all last about 3 seconds. Many basic physiological events, such as relaxed breathing and certain nervous system functions do, too. And several other species of mammals and birds follow the general rule in their body-movement patterns. A 1994 study of giraffes, okapis, roe deer, raccoons, pandas, and kangaroos living in zoos, for example, found that although the duration of the animals’ every move, from chewing to defecating, varied considerably, the average was, you guessed it, 3 seconds.
The results reinforce an idea current among some psychologists that intervals of about 3 seconds are basic temporal units of life that define our perception of the present moment. Put another way, what one psychologist called the “feeling of nowness” tends to last 3 seconds.
Colwyn Trevarthen, a psychobiologist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, agrees that the 3-second pattern is of paramount importance as the foundation of our conscious experience. But he points out that the body has other rhythms, too, including split-second reflexes. All of them make up our natural sense of time, which is hardly a rigid metronome. “We’re not talking about something crude and automatic. We’re talking about something flexible and highly expressive,” Trevarthen says. “It’s biological. It’s mental. It’s spiritual. This is the timing of the human spirit.“
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