The Mystery of the Stopped Clock Illusion



Have you ever noticed that every time you first glance at an analog clock, the second hand seems frozen in time, if just for an instant? It's as if you catch time off guard for a moment, fixed in some sort of surreal hiccup. In fact, the experience is so common that scientists have a name for it: the Stopped Clock Illusion. Rapid eye movements shift your gaze so swiftly that it creates a momentary break in the visual experience. Rather than blur your vision like with what happens when a camera shifts quickly in a movie, your brain instead attempts to build a seamless impression from the visual data. Thus, when your gaze shifts faster than you can process the visual experience, your brain makes up for the brief hiccup by extending the experience of what's seen when the eye movements settle. Technically, this illusion happens every time you shift your attention rapidly, but usually it's not detectable. The reason we seem to catch our brains in the act when we look at a clock is because we also happen to know that clocks move with precise regularity, independent of our perception. Unfortunately, the Stopped Clock Illusion is just that: an illusion. As we all know, time stops for no one.