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‘Time Warped’: The Many Ways Humans Experience Time

Time flies. Time stands still. We’ll look at time and human perception.



Time is weirdly elastic. Physics and philosophy have their explanations, but every human knows it’s true.

Time stands still, we say. Time flies. A minute can seem an eternity. An hour can go by in a flash. A child’s summer can seem endless. A grandparent’s seasons can go by in a whir. A great athlete may almost see the ball, the racetrack in slow motion.

How does that all work?  My guest today says the experience of time is actively created by our minds.

Up next On Point: We are off the clock today, out where time is malleable. We’re looking at human perceptions of time.

– Tom Ashbrook


Claudia Hammond, author of “Time Warped: Unlocking The Mysteries Of Time Perception” and host of “All In The Mind” and “Mind Changers” on the BBC. (@claudiahammond)

Robert Sabbag, author of “Down Around Midnight: A Memoir Of Crash And Survival.”

Show Highlights

For transcripts of individual show highlights, read this hour’s complementary blog post.

Also, see collected tweets from during the show.

Hammond Previews Her Book


From the book TIME WARPED by Claudia Hammond. Copyright © 2013 by Claudia Hammond. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

“Your Time Is My Time” (from Chapter One: The Time Illusion)

(Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers)

(Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers)

Each society forms rules about time that its people share and understand. In many parts of the world, including Europe and the US, if a ticket for a play says 7.30 p.m. it is customary to arrive earlier than the specified time, but if a party invitation says 7.30 p.m. you are expected to arrive later. The sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel believes that these social rules provide us with a means of judging time. We learn to expect a play or show to last about two hours and anything longer starts to feel as though it is dragging, whereas the same period of time would feel too short to count as a morning’s work. If we unexpectedly see someone at the wrong time we might not even recognise them. Cultures develop shared ideas of appropriate timings; how long you should stay when invited into someone’s home, even how long you should know a partner before you consider marrying them. Exceptions surprise us. I remember sitting at a lunch in Ghana on a table with six men, two of whom (one local and one from Scotland) surprised the rest of us with their tales of marriage proposals on first dates. (In case you are wondering, both the women they asked said ‘Yes’, and both marriages are still going strong more than two decades later.)

Routines give us a sense of security. They are so important that the mere act of breaking them can disrupt a person’s concept of time and, in extreme cases, even cause terror. At Guantanamo Bay it was standard practice to make the timing of meals, sleep and interrogation unpredictable, defeating a prisoner’s urge to count time and thereby inducing anxiety. Knowing the exact date was of no practical use to Alan Johnston, yet he knew he needed to try to keep track of the calendar. This desire for predictability and control is nothing new. In the early Middle Ages, Benedictine monks decided that predictability was essential to living a good and godly life and would ring bells at fixed intervals and carry out regular services to create a shared routine.

Time dictates the pattern of our lives — when we work, when we eat, even when we choose to celebrate. Just as the Benedictine monks knew when to expect the bells to ring, we each form appropriate temporal schemata for our own lives, which overwrite each other as they go out of date. (As soon as you have a new school timetable, it’s very hard to remember the previous one.) Some of our temporal schemata are controlled by the changing patterns in the seasons, so inevitably winter and summer are particularly salient time-frames. Others are defined by our culture, so if I were to be dropped in my street at a random time and asked to guess the time, the day of the week and the month, then a combination of nature and culture would provide external cues to all three; if there is little traffic, few people walking by and no sign of life in the barber’s, then it must be a Sunday. The temperature and the presence or absence of leaves on the sycamore trees will give a clue as to the time of year, and if the sun is out, its position in the sky would give a rough indication of the time of day.

The cyclical nature of the calendar helps us to organize time in our minds. When you are at school, the academic timetable punctuates the year, a punctuation that can have a lasting emotional impact (from which some teachers never escape). The American psychiatrist John Sharp has noticed that a number of his clients feel worse at the end of the summer — a hangover from years of back-to-school dread. Surprisingly, in the temperate climates in the northern hemisphere suicide rates are higher in the spring, as though deep despair sets in when the promise of spring fails to deliver respite from a spell of misery.

Claudia Hammond, author of "Time Warped." ( Ian Skelton/HarperCollins Publishers)

Claudia Hammond, author of “Time Warped.” (Ian Skelton/HarperCollins Publishers)

As you’d expect, the effect of the seasons varies depending on where you live, as do attitudes towards time. To investigate this the social psychologist Robert Levine compared the tempo of life in 31 countries around the world using three indicators. First, he measured the average walking speed of random pedestrians walking alone in the morning rush hour along a flat street with wide pavements. How fast did people choose to walk? Window-shoppers were excluded on the basis that they dawdle, and the streets selected were not so congested that the crowds would slow people down. Second, he wanted to compare the efficiency of an everyday task, so he measured the time taken to request a stamp in the local language, to pay for it and to receive the change. Finally, to establish the value placed on time-keeping in each culture, the accuracy of 15 clocks on the walls of banks in each city was checked. Combining these measures gave him an overall score for pace of life. It may not surprise you to learn that the USA, northern Europe and South East Asian countries had the fastest tempos, but Levine’s findings weren’t all so predictable. The efficiency of stamp-selling in Costa Rica brought the country up to thirteenth place in the tempo charts (funnily enough that’s the exact opposite of the experience I had buying a stamp there, but then that’s why we have systematic research on these things, rather than relying on anecdote). Even within the same country the variation can be extreme. On comparing 36 cities in the USA, in this instance combining walking speeds and clock accuracy with the time taken to obtain change in a bank, Boston came out fastest, while the home of showbiz, Los Angeles, was slowest, let down by particularly laid-back bank clerks. Everyone expected New York to come out on top, but in a 90-minute observation period during the early 1990s, the researcher witnessed one pedestrian dealing with a mugger and another with a pickpocket, which might have slowed them down.

At the time of the study the countries with the fastest tempos were also the countries with the strongest economies. This raises the question of which comes first — do people in active economies move faster because time is perceived to be more valuable, or did the fast pace of life lead to economic success? There’s no doubt that energy and speed can help some businesses, but in some cases there is a limit to the extent to which the speed of your work can increase the market for your goods. However fast you make umbrellas, if it never rains where you live, no one will buy them. So the relationship between tempo and gross domestic product is best seen as a two-way interaction. Speed leads to some economic success, but economic success also requires people to move faster and makes a society more reliant on the clock.

Tweets From During The Show

From Tom’s Reading List

Scientific American: Time On The Brain: How You Are Always Living In The Past, And Other Quirks Of Perception — “The bottom line is that memory is essential to constructing scenarios for ourselves in the future. Anecdotal evidence backs this up. Our ability to project forward and to recollect the past both develop around age 5, and people who are good at remembering also report having vivid thoughts about the future.”

Smithsonian: Do Humans Have A Biological Stopwatch? — “When we witness the passage of time, according to noted physicist Paul Davies, we are actually observing how the “later states of the world differ from earlier states that we still remember.” In that sense time is like a movie: We are seeing slightly altered images playing in rapid succession.”

io9: How Do You Really Know What Time Is? — “The scientists who work on the problem of time in the brain sometimes refer to their area of expertise as “time perception” or “clock timing.” What they’ve discovered is that your brain is one of the least accurate time measurement devices you’ll ever use. And it’s also the most powerful.”


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  • Michiganjf

    Sometimes the adage has it dead wrong… that’s the case with “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

    For my first 38 years, I packed in activities, travel, and new experiences continuously and frequently… time seemed to last forever, and youth seemed to last so long. I amassed no capital.

    At 38 years, I married… suddenly, a desire to save and build for the future took precedence, and for twelve years now, my wife and I have done little but invest in a secure future.

    We work a lot, feel tired frequently, and spend little on recreational activities.
    These last twelve years seem to have evaporated in a blink.
    We have no children, which would likely make a difference.

    Working on our home is enjoyable, as are cheap hobbies, and we feel satisfaction about our economic progress… but aside from occasional camping, we have taken only 3 short vacations in twelve years. We very rarely go out, due to prioritizing expenses… hardly what is typically meant by “having fun.”

    I can say, with conviction, that “Time flies when you’re relatively idle (save for your work), but seems to go on forever when you’re having fun.”

    That adage would better reflect my experience, it’s just not as catchy.

    • Gary Trees

      Michiganjf…I think you’re doing it wrong. Get out there man! Money can be put to better use NOW! Use your money, or at least some of it, to enjoy the youth you have now. I fear that if you don’t you’ll regret it. (says random internet commentor who doesn’t know you or your situation at all.)

      • JobExperience

         I think he found out that what Capitalism advertises as “fun” is empty meaningless and wasteful. The most perfect corrupt corporate police state on Earth is Disney World. Work, especially self-directed labor is something we all need every day. He may not realize how happy he is at present. After all, shopping is not much fun.

  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    What a great subject !

    -How would your guest explain the meaning and consequences of Plank time, that is,

    5.4 * 10^-44 seconds. Max Plank “argued” that this quantum of time is the smallest unit that can exist ! If time and length are truly quantized, then the mathematics that support all of science are in jeopardy. For how can one talk of a function being continuous, or how could anyone ever form a proof based on the principal of induction ? Quantized time and length would also mean that each and everyone of us are composed of a countable number of “packets”. If this were true our very being would be a juxtaposition of packets, whose interstices are filled with “other” stuff. Of course, this “stuff “ is the stuff that Star- Trek-ian teleportation particles are made of, or so it seems.

    -How might we view the meaning of time if we were immortal or lived extremely “long“ lives ?


    -How do patients suffering from Cotard’s delusion view the passage of time ? Do the “dead” know the meaning of time?

  • Ed75

    One different kind of time is sacred time, keeping the hours. Time then sort of goes into the background, and is a harmonious part of the physical world. It’s partly a stepping out of time.

    • 1Brett1

      As in meditation (or prayer), the moment, the zen of it, allows the participant to suspend the pace determined by  human chronometers.

  • Ed75

    In certain brain illnesses like MS one can lose one’s ability to estimate time. As one person told me, ‘I was standing at the bus stop … I could have been there ten minutes or ten hours, I couldn’t say.’

    • 1Brett1

      That is so true, Ed. I have had a couple of friends with Parkinson’s, and their perceptions of time are very distorted. It gives one insight into how they perceive their movements and very simple tasks such as reaching for a cup.

  • John Cedar

     About four years ago…………..no…wait…it was yesterday.
    ~Steven Wright

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003854179878 Orange Sunshine

    I want to know why time goes so slowly when you are young, but the older you get, the faster time goes.

    Also, this discussion must include some Pink Floyd:

    “Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day,
    Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way . .. “

  • ToyYoda

    Please explain the phenomena first observed by Einstein:

    Time goes slow when you’re with your relatives.

  • ToyYoda

    If time seems to go faster as you get older, just think of how much subjective time you have left!   If you are 40, and the last 20 years felt like 2 weeks, then you will have less than that before you are dead.  

    So if you care, by all means, try to punctuate your life with special moments if only to lengthen the subjective time you have left.

  • Matt K.

    I hope to hear about 

  • Matt K.

    This discussion reminds me of the Amazon tribe that is said to have little to no language for time beyond day and night. They are a community that lives through a series of events rather than time.  
    Here is an excerpt from an article at Australian Geographic (http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/amazon-tribe-has-no-language-for-time.htm). “We’ve created these metaphors and they have become the way we think,” he adds. “The Amondawa don’t talk like this and don’t think like this, unless they learn another language. For these fortunate people time isn’t money; they aren’t racing against the clock to complete anything, and nobody is discussing next week or next year; they don’t even have words for ‘week’, ‘month’ or ‘year’. You could say they enjoy a certain freedom.”

  • JobExperience

    DRShow is on Reagan Time since last week. Insulting fascist comments are welcomed and anything  progressive or incisive is “moderated”. It hasn’t been quite as blatant here yet. But the demise of the world economy and ecology is very close. Talkshows behave as if it’s centuries away. Producers need to feel the urgency and host guests who can advise us on survival of civilization.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joan-Marie-Davidson/1031260734 Joan Marie Davidson

      Dear JobExperience,
      I had to google DRShow since I live in  central Vermont and am not so “hip”—-even though I’ve heard the show a few times when  driving south of here.Not a fan.

      Much that is  thoughtful has become Center Right and we
      are a nation unaffected by history, so young, so immature. Still and all, some people are capable of thinking for themselves. You, apparently, are one of them.

  • Michiganjf


       that story your guest told was an important example, as many OBVIOUSLY don’t know that seemingly “frivolous” science can end up leading to ground-breaking discoveries which revolutionize a field… this allows people like your conservative guest to mislead their adherents with mindless rhetoric.

    You were too quick to say “yes, yes, we know that silly sounding science can end up being very important.”

    … Your guest made a great point!

  • andrea5

         “The Hatter was the first to break the silence. ‘What day of the month is it?’ he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.
         Alice considered a little, and then said, ‘The fourth.’
         ‘Two days wrong!’ sighed the Hatter. ‘I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works!’ he added, looking angrily at the March Hare.
         ‘It was the *best* butter,’ the March Hare meekly replied.
         ‘Yes, but some crumbs must have got in as well,’ the Hatter grumbled: ‘you shouldn’t have put it in with the bread-knife.’
         The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily: then he dipped it into his cup of tea, and looked at it again: but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, ‘It was the *best* butter, you know.’”

    - Lewis Carroll

  • Coastghost

    Distinctly odd how spokespersons for science routinely invoke the appeal of “the future”: even though the sciences of astronomy and photography assure us that the only temporal state admitting to baryonic description and depiction is the temporal state of the past: the future miraculously never arrives, the present remains only an extrapolation of the past.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      Give me a minute. I’ll answer you later…sometime in the future.

      • Coastghost

        Id est: in a further past. The distinction is not merely semantic, necessarily. The future NEVER exists, the past only extends, since only the past can be measured and extrapolated, since only the past is ever measured and extrapolated. (“Growing block universe” view, it’s called.) All of our interactions all life long are with the past, never with the future. This IS the common testimony of astronomy and photography. 

        • Expanded_Consciousness

          Physically, not mentally.

          • Coastghost

            Physically quivering over the most recent past, in which case. Microscopy does not appreciably lessen or shorten the distance, either.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    It isn’t only the experience in the moment. It is the memory of it. We go over and over certain experiences until we can reconstruct them (or think we can) in every detail.

  • HarryAnchorite

    Time does not, in fact, exist; it is a human fiction that we have developed to generalize the complex of natural processes which govern our existence, ranging from the revolutions of the earth around the sun to the number of regularized ticks on a clock that we can hold a breath, etc.
    Consider the “Rip Van Winkle Experiment,” a thought experiment that goes as follows:  When the fictional RVW awoke from his 20-year nap, he realized that much “time” had passed because his beard had grown long and it was intermixed with dead leaves.  When he returned to his village, he found that village life had gone on during his absence.  But what if everything else had also gone to sleep, as he had? What if his beard had not grown, what if the seasons had not progressed, what if the lives of his colleagues in the village had simply stood still, what if the universe, from every subatomic particle and every photon to the furtherest galaxies had frozen in place? How would any passage of time be reckoned?  It could not be done.  Would any time have passed?  I think not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mathias-Detamore/12926446 Mathias Detamore

    In terms of time seeming to speed up as we age, do you think the addage that as we pass through time, our units of measuring time become ever smaller fractions of our lives to impress our perception of it has any impact?

  • BlueNH

    Childbirth seems endless, but childhood speeds by. What happened to my little babies? They are all grown up!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1054514814 Gregory Dudzienski

    As a musician, I find this topic very interesting.  During a performance, I am very aware of “metric time”…that is the pulse and tempo of the music, placing notes and phrases at the proper place in time, accuracy of time and tempo, et cetera.  What I’ve found is that when I am focused on this perception of time, I have very little awareness of “clock time”.

    • no8ing

       Especially true when, in an extemporaneous riff, my musical expression moves tempo forcefully outside the conventional bounds implied by bass, drums… etc.  The elation, or “high” associated with creative musical expression is, in large part, fueled by breaking thls preconception:  I am moving through time toward a known event horizon.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Out of nine lives I’ve used 8. Twice as a passenger in a car I faced death. The first time I experienced time normally. In the second accident, however, time literally slowed down as the situation unfolded. I watched the contents of a work van full of equipment swirl around me in slow motion as it rolled over and over a couple of times.

  • creaker

    Catch-22 has a character that worked at making his life as boring and mundane as possible thereby stretching his subjective time and making his life “feel” much longer than it actually was.

    Added: Dunbar

    • http://www.facebook.com/vinnie.mpsuj VinNie Mpsuj


  • josolbklyn

    Great show.  I tutor high school kids one-on-one. Once I was talking with a kid about how time moved faster as I got older, and I said I didn’t know why, and he offered that each day was a fraction of a longer life than his and therefore a smaller fraction.  Smaller fractions would move faster, he said.  I suppose we were working on math.  :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joan-Marie-Davidson/1031260734 Joan Marie Davidson

      This really makes sense to me. A dear cousin of mine maintained, a few years ago, that time passes faster for those of us who are over 60 or 70 (my case).
      She claimed it was a “scientific fact” & suggested I google it. I did but there were no credible results. THIS  makes sense to me. Thank you.

  • Jrathbun

    For me, time just speeds by so fast I can barely believe it!  My daughters are now 20 to 32, and I just spent the weekend with my 2-year-old granddaughter.  I can remember so well when her mother was that age, and all the ages in between.  My grandmother, who died at 96, told me that time just went faster and faster for her until she reached her 90s, and then it slowed down.

  • Alfred Brown

    We’ve probably all had the experience of our alarm clocks being incorporated into our dreams.  For me it’s usually that the alarm doesn’t interrupt the dream, but rather fits into the story and is a fitting conclusion to it.  One such is that I’m defusing a bomb and my alarm clock goes off right as the clock on the bomb reaches zero.  I used to think that my brain had a really good sense of WHEN the alarm was going to ring, but now I think that, even more amazingly, it invents a dream and plays it out as a RESULT of the alarm; that I experience a span of time in a dream that is perhaps a minute long, but in a split second in actual time. 

    Fred, Buffalo, NY

    • http://www.facebook.com/vinnie.mpsuj VinNie Mpsuj

      Had similar dream of guillotine dropping as alarm sounds

    • nj_v2

      I was going to bring up the idea of time in the conscious/waking realm vs. the sleeping one. We spend about a third of our lives sleeping.

      Do our perceptions of time only apply to the waking realm? When i wake up in the morning, i don’t seem to have any sort of solid sense that i’ve been sleeping for 6–7 hours (my usual amount). Seems like i was just going to bed.

      How does sleep time figure into our conception of time on a daily basis? Or over the long term?

  • Kate

    As a New Orleanian  who lived through Katrina, I felt as though time froze when the hurricane hit, wasn’t passing the whole time I was in exile, and only started again when I got back home 18 months later. I went to a friend’s wedding in April of 2005, and was shocked to hear of their second anniversary occurring shortly after I got back home. I would have sworn to anyone it was only a few months prior. I have a number of friends who feel the same, as if the entire period during which they were displaced after Katrina feels like a non-time, where nothing happened and the world felt like it was on pause.  

  • rexhenry

    You don’t know how fast time is until you try to beat it

  • Kate


  • ThirdWayForward

    For the reading list, look at Paul Fraisse’s classic book The Psychology of Time (1965)

    Before that read Henri Bergson (Norbert Wiener contrasts Bergsonian vs. Newtonian time in his book Cybernetics (1948)). See Creative Evolution, Matter and Memory, Time and Free Will. We think he is often miscategorized as a vitalist.

    Subjective time is organismic change, as Bergson and Aristotle thought.

    This hour is passing way too rapidly.
    Time is our most precious resource, one that we cannot
    produce anew. The less we have left of it, the more precious it becomes.

  • Trond33

    Interesting topic, I would love to write a well thought out comment, but I just don’t have the TIME… :) 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=419893 Aaron Weinstein

    I was just talking about this exact topic with a friend of mine.  She’s here studying in the States this spring, and we have been in awe how long ago the beginning of April seems!  We haven’t even known each other two months, yet it seems it’s been ages.  Why is that?  Is it a function of the amount of time spent together, the kinds of interactions or conversations, or something else?

  • DrTing

    We give gifts & money but not time because time cannot be recycled.

  • Tangible

    You should offer translations of Claudia’s British English:
    nappies = diapers
    fortnight = two weeks
    holiday = vacation

  • Ophelia999

    I have found the key to slowing time absolutely: Spinning class….where every minute is an eternity. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/lori.cerny.7 Lori Cerny

    Since the author implies we make fewer new memories as we age, due to rote lifestyles, I wonder if creative people have a different perception of time as they are always generating something new?

  • no8ing

    Our individual moment by moment experience of subjective and objective time is driven by the various need we have for physical, emotional, psychological survival.  Are we timing a science experiment, making love, debating Allen Watts, running a bicycle road race, avoiding a dogs bite or experiencing nirvana?  Each requires it’s own quality of attention for survival.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rick.alpert Rick Alpert

    Consider going from age 1 to age 2; you have doubled your time on Earth. Age 2 to 3; only added a third to your existence. By the time your 60 and you become 61 it’s just a small bit compared to the rest of your time on Earth; can this be why time seems to be accelerating as I age?

  • geraldfnord

    Some activities, particularly the ones our genes are most interested in our pursuing, seem timeless, and I’ve often thought that it’s because they’re rooted in a part of our brain that dates back to when time didn’t exist for our far ancestors.

    But then again, I get the same feeling from deep sessions of maths or programming, which are newer activities…but maybe they’re piggy-backing on the more ancient behaviour, we do not have an infinitely variegated repertoire of reactions….

  • mstreams

    I have noticed that on my first time driving to a new location, when I have to look for landmarks, pay more attention to unfamiliar roads, etc.  the trip seems to take much longer subjectively than the return trip, now that I know (even just slightly more) how to get there. Fascinating show, thank you!

  • no8ing

    Experience time slowing down by applying the following words to your mind:  Come, Take my hand… and we’ll walk… into… midnight…

  • hilarybarnett

    I just spent 2 days at a monastery, where monks pray 7 times per day at the exact same time. Their day is ordered to be consistent, no matter what the season. I wonder, based on Claudia’s interpretation of being able to make time go slower by collecting new experiences, how this would differ for the monks, whose experience is very routine and even monotonous? I would be fascinated to hear an interview with one of them about their perception of time. Everything seemed to move much more slowly at the monastery. 

  • http://twitter.com/Elissa_Malcohn Elissa Malcohn

    Loved the show.  As a caregiver I spend much waiting time, whose subjective speed I’ve been able to quicken with the help of an eReader.  It replaces my mental foot-tapping with immersion in easily-accessible books.  I also identify with the commenter who described being in a creative zone. Years ago I had sat down at around 1 p.m. to write, during which time all my other needs seemed to stop.  When I had finished I checked my clock and felt confused; surely I had spent more than four hours at my desk.  Then I heard morning birds and realized my clock read 5 a.m. rather than p.m.  I felt only a bit tired around the eyes but was otherwise still full of energy.

  • nj_v2

    Fascinating topic! Only heard a part of the program; looking forward to sitting down with the podcast later.

    Back in the day (how many years ago, exactly?) when AOhHell was my Interwebs service provider, they had a little box that would pop up on logging off that said, “You’ve been online for x minutes.” “x” was always a surprisingly large number.

  • Barry Kort

    I have experienced the elasticity of time, which I suspect is a feeling mediated by tachykinins (or some related neuropeptide) which evidently has the ability to modulate the firing rate of neurons.

    Dolly Parton performs a nostalgic song entitled, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” which establishes a very regular metronomic beat, and then unexpectedly inserts a stretched beat on a particular lyric (“How … I wish we could go back in time”) that gives the listener the sensation of time stopping for an instant, then speeding for two beats.  It’s an utterly uncanny listening experience if you don’t know it’s coming. 

    Listen, also to the studio album version, where the time-warp effect is optimized.

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