Time, Memory & Perception

Tony Cassar
6 min readFeb 3, 2020

In ancient Greece, Mnemosyne, the Goddess of memory was considered as one of the most important divinities, because the Greeks realized that without memory there could be no rational thought nor artistic inspiration. In the age before the invention of the written word memory played a very important role. Memory was necessary for the individual’s and society’s wellbeing who relied on lessons passed on orally. Even Zeus the supreme deity of the ancient Greeks, even though immortal, was afraid that his great victories and decision over the Titans might be forgotten with time. Dressed up as a shepherd he sought Mnemosyne and months after sleeping with her for nine nights, she gave birth on nine consecutive days to the nine muses. The muses sang not only about Zeus but also about the great Greek heroes, the creation of the world, the rules of the universe and of life itself.

Memory and time are intertwined, a love hate relationship of remembrance and forgetfulness, preservation and rewriting of history. Memory and time have shaped mankind’s ideas about mortality and immortality, permanence and change. They are basic building blocks in religions, philosophy, literature, history, the art and mythology. Yet as Saint Augustine once said, whilst it is relatively easy to understand time, explaining is much more complex and difficult. Memory allows us to remember and recognize things and events over time. Yet this interpretation and understanding is significantly affected by time perception. Psychologists and neuroscientists suggest that humans do have a complex system governing time perception. Whilst time perception is the result of the sapient brain, it can also be manipulated and distorted under certain conditions and circumstances.

Specific senses help us understand and interpret the world around us, how we see colours, how we hear sounds and how textures feel. Yet perceiving time is not associated with a specific sense or senses. Time itself can’t be heard or seen or felt passing, but we can see this “passing of time”, distinctly from our five senses and though the perception of other things. There are various processes through which we are made aware of time and which influence the way we think that time really is.

Whilst we do not perceive time, we perceive events or changes in time. When experiencing such events, we do not experience them on their own but also their temporal relations. There are a number of fundamental aspects of how we experience time. Amongst these we find; (i) duration, (ii) order, (iii) past and present and (iv) non-simultaneity. One interesting area in time perception which I am focusing my work on is the link between time perception and motion perception very often understood as the special position of an object with time.

In Book XI of the Confessions St Augustine explores Time and its relation to God, one of the puzzles that St Augustine seeks to answer, is how to define the duration of an event. He concludes that when we are trying to measure the duration of an event we are in reality trying to measure memory. The perception of temporal duration is therefore tied up with memory. “Time Memory” is the memory of when some particular event occurred. Closely tied to duration of events, is event precedence preconception. British Philosopher Hugh Mellor argues that hidden in the person’s short-term memory is information of some sort that allows the brain to sequentialise events, to decide that B came after A. The way the brain perceives precedence is essentially different from the way it deals with any other form of perception. Unlike other senses like taste and touch the mind does not have a specific area to control our perception of time. A whole complex network of areas within the brain interact together to affect our perception of time. According to Mellor, the way time-order is perceived is determined by the time by which perceptions occur but not effected by the perception’s content.

Mellor’s idea is that the brain represents time by means of time: that temporally ordered events are represented by similarly temporally ordered experiences. An alternative idea is presented by Daniel Dennetwho argues that time-order is intact dependent on both the time the perceptions occurred but also on the content itself. Thus the brain may deduce the events’ temporal order based on that sequence which makes most sense for it.

Reverse Motion

Until the end of the 19th Century, no one had ever seen or experienced time run backwards, but in 1896 early cinematic technology allow this seemingly impossible phenomenon to appear in front of the audiences’ eyes. Reverse Motion is a long standing cinematic special effect whereby the filmed action is time-reversed and shown backwards.

Theatre and music had for thousands of years used time as the scale or background on which to run their performances. Cinema introduced time as another artistic element in itself. In cinema time is no longer the canvas on which the painting is painted but becomes paint itself. Cinema technology allows time to be manipulated, sped up or slowed down, cut, reversed or looped. Reverse Motion is one of the techniques used by cinema to manipulate time.

This technique of temporal inversion added to the cinematic redefinition of reality. Reverse Motion has often been used to bring things “back to life” by visually reversing the process of decay or destruction. The Lumieres’ short film “Demolition of a Wall” , was shot in the early months of 1896. It is probably one of the very first examples of reverse motion. The film shows a group of workers working to demolish a wall, only to have the knocked down wall magically reassemble itself. The film was meant to be a documentary but when it was played backwards by mistake, it created a huge shock amongst the viewers, leading Louis Loumier to keep on playing the film in reverse which turned the film into a sensation. The public’s response to the film was phenomenal and in one night alone more than 300 patrons had to be turned away from the sold out shows.

In Jean Cocteau’s film “Beauty and the beast” a scene showing one character approaching a fire and pulling a paper out of it was actually filmed in reverse motion by the actor placing the paper in the fire and then walking backwards (Cocteau, 1946). This was not a chance playback in reverse but a carefully planned cinematic effect. Coctaeu used reverse motion in many other films he produced, with the 1960 film Le Testament d’Orphée being the most prominent one.

Dead Island trailer

Reverse motion has reappeared in the post-classical cinematic spectacle. It has been experimentally used in video game production. The video game trailer for “Dead Island” uses reverse motion throughout the whole game trailer to transpose the story to it’s origin. Whereas reverse motion in cinema has always been used to create spectacle, when used in music videos, its meaning will depend entirely on the song that plays with it. Bentley Rhythem Ace’s “Bentley’s Gonna Sort you out” 1997 uses reverse motion in the official video through reverse sky diving, explosions, gymnastics, card driving and more.

Coldplay — The Scientist

Coldplay’s “The Scientist” sees the lead vocalist Chris Martin reverse lip-sync the line “I’m going back to the start”. The video follows the singer walking from the city to the countryside, with reverse motion used practically throughout the whole video.

Film reconstructs motion by automatically capturing a series of images / pictures over equidistant temporal intervals using the film / video machine. Reverse motion plays these sequence of image captures in the opposite sequence of their registration. According to cinema historian and film critic Francois Albera, even the earliest cinema commentators recognized that the very act of watching a film entailed the active creation of movement by the brain and the eye. The viewer is not actually viewing already existing motion but the perception of motion through the interaction of the projected image and the brain’s interpretation of the sequences of images it is being presented with.

Reverse motion’s turning of cause and effect challenges traditional story telling. It opens up a huge amount of possibilities for cinematic treatment and interpretation of time and motion. Through using the forward motion technique in storytelling, film makers can use this special effect to reverse whole scene sequences across time and still give a completely natural feel to the film as well as maintaining clarity.

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Tony Cassar

An existentialist, digital artist, strong believer and advocate of new museology as the ideal environment for personal growth and development.