Questions for Sonja Ehret

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Sonja Ehret, MSc, is a research associate and PhD student on Project R5: “Waiting and Expecting in Spaces of Otium: An Empirical Study on the Connection Between Expectation, Atmosphere and Sense of Time”.


“MußeOrte weltweit” (Places of Otium – Worldwide): Ms Ehret, in Project R5, you’re looking at the effect of spaces of otium on the way time is perceived. What was your original premise or idea?

Sonja Ehret

Sonja Ehret: Our supposition is that experiences of otium are closely tied to particular ways of experiencing time. We assume that there are specific factors which either facilitate or inhibit the experience of otium. Some architects follow this idea by designing their buildings in such a way that they ideally support the experience of otium. Working with art historians, we’ve selected some of these buildings and are studying the experiences and the behaviour of the people who visit these spaces.

“MußeOrte – weltweit”: What kinds of buildings are these, or in what kinds of spaces are you researching this?

Sonja Ehret: We’ve determined four categories that are important in this context: spas (such as thermal baths), places of prayer (such as churches), museums, and libraries. At first glance, the modern architectural style of these buildings doesn’t seem to lend itself to otium. However, when you take a closer look, which we’re doing in this project, and analyse how people behave in these spaces, it quickly becomes clear that many of these are in fact ‘classic’ places of otium after all. This connects our research to the CRC 1015’s first funding phase, where classic otiose architecture was examined.

“MußeOrte weltweit”: Other than physical space, are there additional factors that can contribute to this particular way of perceiving time that’s tied to otium?

Sonja Ehret: Among other things, we’re currently interested in the exploration of spaces. One of the main questions we are dealing with is: What are the differences between a situation in which a person has the opportunity to get to know and explore a space, and a situation where this opportunity does not exist? For experiencing timelessness, we do not yet favour one of those options, as we think that both options can potentially lead to an experience where one loses track of time. Either way, how spaces are explored definitely seems to be a relevant condition for the oblivion of time. We’re also interested in factors that can inhibit otium. For instance, we investigated what happens when a person is required to spend a predetermined amount of time in a space while expecting a certain event to happen at the end of that time span. How does, let’s say, a negative expectation influence someone’s perception of that time? Could this inhibit the possibility of experiencing otium during a museum visit, for instance?

“MußeOrte weltweit”At the Collaborative Research Centre 1015, we discuss the different qualities of experiencing time; for example, in the context of phenomena such as flow or immersion. How would you differentiate the type of time experience that you’re focusing on from these other phenomena? Is it necessary to differentiate them from each other at all? 

Sonja Ehret: That’s a very difficult question, because we are still figuring out how time perception in otium should be described in a psychological context. This is precisely one of the goals of our project. For example, it still isn’t clear whether time seemingly feels faster or slower during otium. Our results to date indicate that people who are experiencing otium actually have a hard time determining this. They report that they were simply unaware of the flow of time, which is very close to the experience of timelessness, which I mentioned earlier. Retrospectively, it’s then hard to say whether the time went by quickly or slowly. This makes it difficult to draw a line between otium, flow, and immersion, because these phenomena can also be tied to a very similar experience of time. However, subtle differences between them surely do exist, and these are exactly what we’re trying to track in this project.

“MußeOrte weltweit”: What would surely interest non-psychologists are the methods you’re using. How did you arrive at the results you’ve described?

Sonja Ehret: We’re running experiments. This might sound like it’s all happening in a sterile lab environment, but that’s not the case. Here’s what we’re doing: We’re concentrating on specific factors which we think either enable or inhibit otium. The heart of each experiment is one of the spaces I mentioned earlier, designed by an architect to be conducive to otium. Each participant spends a certain amount of time in this space, normally about an hour and a half; we then pick them up and ask them about their visit. For example, we ask them to estimate how long they were in the space, or how they subjectively perceived the passage of time. Did the time fly by or drag on? Were they bored? We then conduct an interview with them to find out things like how or if their perception of time changed over the course of their time in the space. For example, some of the participants reported that the time went by really quickly at first, but then they got bored as it went on. Our goal is to thoroughly describe their perception of time and identify similarities among the participants’ experiences. In a nutshell: As experimental psychologists, we expose our participants to several differing conditions in spaces of otium and based on these conditions, we try to identify differences in how they experience time. We then deduce whether the participants were able to experience otium or not.

“MußeOrte weltweit”: Ms Ehret, thank you so much for this interview and the great insight into your project!


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