How many times have you counted down the minutes on a Friday afternoon and found yourself trying to stop Sunday from slipping away? While level of enjoyment and absorption in a task can influence perception of time, there are many other factors that can either accelerate time or slow it down as is commonly reported by accident victims recounting an interminable span waiting for impact. Age, reward anticipation and memory can all impact time perception – as can certain mental health conditions including depression and schizophrenia. But what’s the backstory behind our sense of time and can we change it to work in our favour?
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A SENSE OF TIME
The term ‘sense of time’ departs from the mechanics of the five senses. According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, “It seems odd to say that we see, hear or touch time passing. And even if all our senses were prevented from functioning for a while, we could still notice the passing of time through the changing pattern of our thought. Perhaps, then, we have a special faculty, distinct from the five senses, for detecting time. Or perhaps, as seems more likely, we notice time through perception of other things,” says writer and neuroscientist David Eagleman, an adjunct associate professor at Stanford University’s department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. “Time is not like the other senses,” says Asst Prof Eagleman. “Sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing are relatively easy to isolate in the brain.
They have discrete functions that rarely overlap: it’s hard to describe the taste of a sound, the colour of a smell, or the scent of a feeling. But our sense of time is present in everything we do – whether we are going for a morning jog, listening to a favourite CD or getting ready for work.” According to Asst Prof Eagleman, this is why we sometimes feel that time “stretches and compresses and skips a beat”. The variations between the way we each experience time and how we may experience time under different conditions subscribe to myriad principles – one of the most widely known and discussed accounts for the adage ‘time flies when you’re having fun’. Familiarity theory suggests that time flies faster when something is more familiar. By contrast, when faced with a new situation or experience, we are stimulated by a great deal more perceptual information, which makes time feel like it slows down. “This helps to explain the ‘slow motion perception’ often reported in the moments before an accident,” says Christian Yates, Lecturer in Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath. “Unfamiliar circumstances mean there is so much new information to take in.
When faced with new situations, our brains record more richly detailed memories so it is actually that our recollection of “When faced with a new situation or experience, we are stimulated by a great deal more perceptual information, which makes time feel like it slows down.” the event appears slower rather than the event itself.” Familiarity theory also explains why time seems shorter as we get older – because we are more familiar with many aspects of our life and often having less new experiences. “We don’t notice the detailed environments of our homes and workplaces,” says Yates. “ For children, however, the world is an often unfamiliar place filled with new experiences to engage with. This means children must dedicate significantly more brainpower reconfiguring their mental ideas of the outside world. The theory suggests that this appears to make time run more slowly for children than for adults stuck in a routine.” Brain chemicals may play a role. “The biological mechanism has been suggested to be the neurotransmitter dopamine, released when we perceive novel stimuli helping us to learn to measure time,” says Yates. “Beyond the age of 20 and continuing into old age, dopamine levels drop, making time appear to run faster.” Adrenalin and cortisol, which are released when we are stressed, may also have an impact. Research has shown that these potent stress hormones affect the rate of activity in the brain’s neurons, which may cause the sensation of things slowing down. The sensation particularly occurs when people have a neardeath experience such as a heart attack, where their life flashed before their eyes. Depression may also alter time perception, favouring greater accuracy according to research led by the University of Hertfordshire. While depressed people often experience time as passing slowly or ‘dragging’, their perception of time may be more accurate than that of happier peers, says Professor Diana Kornbrot, Research Professor of Mathematical Psychology. “The results of our study found that depressed people were accurate when estimating time whereas non-depressed peoples’ estimations were too high. This may be because mildly depressed people focus their attention on time and less on external influences, and therefore have clarity of thought – a phenomenon known as ‘depressive realism’.”
THE TIME-MEMORY LINK
‘Elementary time experiences’ create a sense of time and impact on our perception of time, says German neuroscientist and psychologist Ernst Pöppel. These include: duration; non-simultaneity; order; past and present; and change, including the passage of time. In relation to time flying, the element of duration is most pivotal and it is intrinsically linked to our memory and experience of the event. For example, if you go blank when you are in the middle of a work presentation or you realise you’re potentially going to hit the car in front of you, time may seem to slow so much that you feel the world is moving in slow-mo. When a researcher called Stetson conducted a study into time perception, he had people free-fall 50 metres into a net and found that being in potential danger made them remember more detail of the experience.
This process of paying attention made time feel like it both slowed down but made the experience seem longer than it actually was. Research at the University of Alabama has found that when approaching an activity that we know is enjoyable, our anticipation and excitement can make time seem to speed up. When shown photos of geometric shapes or delicious desserts, people felt the shapes were shown longer than the sweets – because they desired to see the desserts for longer. By contrast, if you’ve been looking forward to a social event with all your friends, you might feel that it passes incredibly quickly. Similarly, other enjoyable experiences may also seem to speed up time, such as summer holidays or simply the hours you enjoy every evening after work. The way we remember events also affects our sense of time. British psychology lecturer Claudia Hammond refers to this in her book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. “Reverse telescoping, also known as ‘time expansion’, occurs when you recall that events happened longer ago than they did. This is rare for distant events, but not uncommon for recent weeks.”
One explanation for this is the clarity of memory hypothesis, proposed by the psychologist Norman Bradburn in 1987. “This is the simple idea that because we know that memories fade over time, we use the clarity of a memory as a guide to its recency,” says Hammond. “So if a memory seems unclear, we assume it happened longer ago.” While time impacts memory, memory also shapes our experience of time. “Our perception of the past moulds our experience of time,” Hammond explains. “It is memory that creates the peculiar, elastic properties of time. It not only gives us the ability to conjure up a past “When a researcher called Stetson conducted a study into time perception, he had people free-fall 50 metres into a net and found that being in potential danger made them remember more detail of the experience.” experience at will, but to reflect on those thoughts through autonoetic consciousness – the sense that we have of ourselves as existing across time – allowing us to re-experience a situation mentally and to step outside those memories to consider their accuracy.” Research shows that our recall for events is most vivid if they happened from our teens to our twenties (roughly 15 to 25). According to Hammond, this may be why time feels like it speeds up as we get older. “The key to the reminiscence bump is novelty,” says Hammond. “The reason we remember our youth so well is that it is a period where we have more new experiences than in our thirties or forties. It’s a time for firsts: first sexual relationships, first jobs, first travel without parents, first experience of living away from home, the first time we get much real choice over the way we spend our days. Novelty has such a strong impact on memory that even within the bump we remember more from the start of each new experience.”
You know that great feeling when you lose all sense of time while engrossed in an activity you enjoy? This state is known as ‘flow’ and is a fast-track to happiness and satisfaction. The term flow was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has studied it at length. During a state of ‘flow’ you are focussed and free of worry and oblivious to time. Afterwards, the satisfaction from your achievements also makes you feel happier.
Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times,” says Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. For a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities – challenges to expand ourselves. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.” To get more moments of flow in your life, aim to regularly engage in activities that absorb your complete attention and challenge you. Flow represents a different loss of time to what happens when you find yourself minus two hours after scrolling Instagram or online window shopping.
Research at James Cook University has found that our perception of time speeds up – sometimes substantially – when we are using technology. In the study, psychology lecturer Dr Aoife McLoughlin analysed the way in which individuals experience the passing of time, and how different environmental factors in the world may affect how we process information. People who constantly checked their mobile phones or spent hours at home on social media or using their tablets and computers overestimated the amount of time that had passed while using those devices. By contrast, people who used technology less also felt less hurried and made a closer guesstimate of how long they had been engaged in using the technology. “I’ve found some indication that interacting with technology and technocentric societies has increased some type of pacemaker within us,” says McLoughlin. “While it might help us to work faster, it also makes us feel more pressured by time. As the speed of pace of life increases, the subjective feeling of available time decreases, causing a sense of time pressure within the individual.”
Reset Your Mental Clock
Often we find ourselves in situations where we wish time could speed up or slow down.
Here’s how to take more control over your time perception when you are:
• Waiting in a queue: Whether you’re in a car or at the supermarket, waiting can make time really seem to stretch and drag. To take your mind off it, divert your attention with technology.
• Going on a long car trip: Take some talking books of classic stories that you love. The tales will be engaging while the familiarity of the stories will help time feel like it is moving faster.
• Weekends passing too fast: Schedule in different things to break the familiarity. That may mean going farther afield to a different café, houseswapping with a friend, going on a bushwalk or to a scenic location you haven’t been to before. New environments stimulate all our senses, creating new memories and making it feel like time is slowing down.
• Cleaning the house: Put on some music that you know well and sing along – this will help the task feel like it takes less time.
• Kicking back after work: Though a Netflix series can be compelling, you can also feel like each episode passes too quickly. Instead, try to spend 30 to 60 minutes engaged in an activity that creates flow, such as doing a jigsaw puzzle or learning a new language via on online course. Engaging in a social media blackout for several hours can also make time seem to slow down. In particular, aim to avoid multi-screening, which can make time seem to pass quickly (and can leave you feeling hyped up too).
• Getting through your workout: Again, familiar music can help here or when you’re doing a number of reps and feeling worn out, try recounting some song lyrics or the alphabet in your head and the exercise will feel like it has passed more rapidly