Hugs — and life — follow a 3-second rule

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 30, 2011

Braden Kowitz on Wikimedia Commons

This is the kind of little tidbit I can’t pass up. Apparently, like food dropped on the floor, hugs also follow a 3-second rule.  Apparently a whole slew of studies — across a variety of cultures — have shown that waves, musical phrases, and bits of babbling from infants last about 3 seconds.  A researcher wondered if the same held true for hugs, and show analyzed 188 hugs using video recordings of the Beijing Summer Olympics.  Scientists are so clever.  The hugs generally lasted about 3-seconds.  I bet this is that time period at which you think, “If I really want to make this person know that I don’t want to let go, I should keep holding on now.”  You know those hugs, right?  There is this point past which it becomes just a hug, and becomes more of a Hug.

What’s super interesting about this is it would be one more piece of evidence supporting an idea circulating among the psychology circles, that, as the Science article puts so well:

intervals of about 3 seconds are basic temporal units of life that define our perception of the present moment.

Or, as Colwyn Trevarthen, at the University of Edinburgh says, in comparing this measurement to the body’s reflex system, like knee-jerks,

We’re not talking about something crude and automatic.  This is the timing of the human spirit.

Courtesy of Science (4 Feb, vol 331)

{ 1 comment }

Michael March 30, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Guess what! There’s a connection to physics education research buried in this blog post!

Powers of 3×10^n seconds are really interesting (this is a paraphrase of things I recall from a paper cited below and conversations with its author in 1999):

n=-3 is 3 ms, which is the time our brains need to separate incoming signals

n=-2 is 30 ms, which has some neuro meaning I forget

n=-1 is 0.3 seconds is how long it takes for us to be consciously aware of a signal. (Masking tasks show this sort of thing.)

For n=0, which you wrote about, that’s hug length and the length of time that it takes to “bind” perceptions into meaning. Perhaps that’s why hugs last this long – you’ve filled the sensory buffer by that point; anything going beyond that brings in new meaning (hence, a hug becomes a Hug).

n=1 is 30 seconds, which is about how long an episode of interaction takes. Waving hands really hard when I say that… (but see the paper cited below for evidence)

n=2 is 300 seconds which is 5 minutes. Think of all the things in life that are about 5 minutes long…

n=3 is 3000 seconds, which is 50 minutes. You know, lecture length.

n=4 is 30000 seconds, which is 500 minutes, or about 8 hours and a bit. A workday.

So 3×10^n ends up being a nice scaling from our cognitive through the interactive to the social regulatory.

Claudia von Aufschnaiter talked to me about all this in 1999 when I was visiting the PER group in Bremen, Germany. It’s part of a paper of hers (written with her father, one of the first PER Ph.D.’s in the world):

Aufschnaiter, C. v. and Aufschnaiter, S. v. (2003). Theoretical frame- work and empirical evidence of students’ cognitive processes in three dimensions of content, complexity, and time. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(7):616–648.

The paper has more details on these time scales, as well as evidence for specific interpretations of the 30 and 300 second intervals.


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