Tick, tock, tick - Hugs and life in 3 second intervals

Your life moves in intervals lasting about 3 seconds, so take your time

Posted Jan 30, 2011

Have you ever timed your hugs? Your kisses? How about the lengths of your inhales and exhales?

Would you be surprised if I told you they're all about as long? How about if I told you that most other animals seem to experience life using roughly the same time window we're apparently looking through?

A moment = about 3 seconds

Our 3 second window into life seems to influence not only specific behaviors or activities but rather the entire way in which we perceive our world. A recent study published in the Journal of Ethology examined the duration of hugs given and received by Olympic athletes in the recent 2008 Olympic Games. The sample was pretty comprehensive including 89 men and 96 women, athlete-athlete and athlete-coach embraces, and teammate embraces as well as competitor hugs. The researchers used frame by frame analysis to examine just how long each embrace lasted and then conducted the usual analysis to see which factors affected how long embraces and touches lasted.

The overall average per hug was 3.2 second with a standard deviation of 3.2 seconds. Further analysis revealed that the only significant differences betweeen hug lengths had to do with athletes hugging their coaches (3.8 seconds) for significantly longer than their competitors (1.8 second), which is pretty much to be expected I guess given the setting. Apparently even within our usual confines, subtle differences reflect underlying intentions.

These findings fall in line with a whole slew of research from humans and animals showing that somewhere between 2-5 seconds is the longest window of what we can perceive as an independent event - a moment. Anything longer, or separated by a longer window, is perceived by us as a seperate occurence - close in time, but distinct.

When we know something is coming, our autonomic system prepares us about 3 seconds ahead of time, which makes sense because that's about how long our vagal nervous system takes to alter our heart rate and breathing. The cool thing about this study is that it extends our knowledge about this time-window to social interactions and not simply to individual experiences. Apparently, our own moment-clock affects the way we interact with others (ever have one of those really long awkward hugs?)

What does this all mean?

When put in context, and along with our understanding of the neurophysiological limits of our bodies (it takes about half a second to initiate a movement once we decide to do it), this insight into our selves can explain much about the way we live. Indeed, no matter how much we'd like to avoid it, there are aspects to our "machine" that affect our behavior in ways that are so subtle they're almost beyond our comprehension until we discover them and they become another piece in our self-knowledge and inner-wonder. The link to addiction, my main area of interest, may not be clear from the outset but when you think about it, if we experience life in roughly three second intervals, perhaps our interventions should prepare people to control their behavior in manners that are consistent with that? I don't know of many techniques that take this sort of thing into account... Additionally, given my interest in ADHD, it'd be interesting to see if distractability within the context of that disorder also conforms to the three-second rule.

It's important to note that this doesn't in any way mean that we can't draw meaning out of events that take longer than three seconds. Still, it'd be interesting to see how this awareness affects your experience when you start counting... Now!


Emese Nagy (2011). Sharing the moment: the duration of embraces in humans. Journal of Ethology.


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