Baddeley’s Rendition of Body Temperature and Time Perception is One of Science’s Rare Singles


As of today, I have survived one third of that icy purgatory between autumn and spring that we call winter. With “The Roof is Leaking,” on repeat, Phil Collins pulled me through it last year. But even his crooning reassurance that “spring will soon be here,” winter always seems like an eternity. This observation got me thinking—what influences time perception? It was time to launch an investigation.

Searching through scientific literature is like digging through records in a dollar bin. There are the usual suspects—John Denver, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Willie Nelson’s “Stardust.”  And then there are the surprises—a rare copy of The Beach Boy’s “Smile” or a George Harrison solo album. At first, my investigation revealed the expected. Mainly, discomfort—be it extreme temperatures, poor ambient music, too much or too little lighting—has the power to slow down a person’s internal clock. With a little persistence, however, I scored big and took home a mid-century vintage study published in The American Journal of Psychology circa 1966. This baby was released before ethics committees came in the 70’s and 80’s and borified everything.

I begin with Dr. Alan Baddeley, a British psychologist born in 1934. Baddeley’s greatest hit, “Working Memory,” was a collaboration with Dr. Graham Hitch in 1974. It’s a classic. Professors play working memory religiously in undergraduate psychology classes around the world. But few know Baddeley’s rare single, “Time-Estimation at Reduced Body Temperatures.” It’s raw, casually vague and absolutely not replicable. It is unintentional scientific satire at its finest.

Baddeley opens his paper referencing this guy, Hoagland, as if we’ve known him for years. Hoagland had a theory that the body ran on a chemically regulated internal clock. Support for his theory was an experiment that showed the warmer the person (based on two subjects, one with a fever), the faster he counted. To see if Hoagland’s theory could survive the ol’ switcherooo, Baddeley tested whether cooling the person slowed the clock.

He found twenty amateur divers off the coast of Wales in March. He measured their temperature and pulse-rate before and after they plunged into the cold, 4 degrees Celcius water and had them count to sixty whenever he could. He found that decreasing temperature slowed counting time. Although supporting Hoagland, Baddeley wasn’t satisfied. Perhaps pre-dive anxiety, not post-dive body temperature, had influenced time perception. He packed his things and traveled to Famagusta Bay, Cyprus in August where he could test stress without the cold.

To induce stress “similar” to that of diving in cold water, Baddeley took the obvious route—bombs. He gave the divers a “1-oz. charge of gun cotton with fuse already lit” and made them place it on “a wreck lying in 15 feet of the water.” If it didn’t stay lit, they had to go back and get it. Measuring the same stuff as in the first experiment and finding nothing, Baddeley concluded, in the best read ever, that oral temperature influenced time perception. by: JoAnna Klein

Tags: Baddeley, chemically regulated internal clock, Hoagland, perception, Psychology, temperature, time, Working Memory

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