Time Perception is Everything

seneca not that we have so little timeThinking about time and how we perceive it usually results in little more than a pretty terrible migraine.

(That, and a strong desire to watch Back to the Future.)

Regardless, I still find myself thinking about it quite a bit though.

I mean, how many times do you say, think, or hear someone else say, “Time flies,” in a given week?

And then, sometimes we have long weeks.

What is our time perception, really, and how is it affected?

In this post, I’ll mainly just ask questions that have come up during my reading of our perception of time, some things that make it slow down or speed up, and then share an infographic that will practically blow your mind.

When Time Slows Down

This can basically be reduced to one word: attention.

Neuroscientists still don’t fully understand all the details of how we perceive time either, but they seem to think our brains act like a stopwatch of sorts that varies its counting depending on things like our emotions, health, anatomy, or environment.

If you’ve ever been in a life-or-death situation, you know that a few seconds can feel like infinitely more than that.

That’s because you start paying attention to everything. Because time is processed in different parts of our brains, unlike our five senses which are located in only one section, all that information takes more work to process and is therefore interpreted as taking more time.

In this article, they say:

When we’re in life-threatening situations, for instance, “we remember the time as longer because we record more of the experience. Life-threatening experiences make us really pay attention, but we don’t gain superhuman powers of perception.”

I’ve had two experiences of heightened alert like this.

One, a car accident where a snow drift prevented us from flying of  a high mountain pass. The other one, I was robbed by a group of seven Roma on a Budapest tram at midnight.

I think recording more information is only part of it.

These moments in time stretch out just by the sheer processing power that your brain implements. It’s like your brain thinks, “Crap. This is it. Life or death. Fight or flight. Forget the 10% brain power BS. Whatever processing power I’ve got, whatever survival skills I’ve got buried in my programming, it needs to be used right now.”

Your brain is recording more, yes, but it’s also simultaneously scanning and comparing that as fast as it can to past experiences, what you know about people, and anything else that might lead to a way out that results in you surviving.

In that way, I agree it’s no superhuman power, but it’s a higher level of brain function that I’ve never experienced in any other time.

When Time Speeds Up

When our brains encounter less new information in our environments, it saves energy by recording less of it.

Compared to the life-or-death, supercomputer like mode of processing, our daily lives create short term memories that seem to be run against past experiences. If it’s not much different, our brains don’t see any need in making those experiences accessible to our normal memories. Maybe that’s to save energy?

Eagleman, a neuroscientist, describes it like this:

“Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”

He also mentions this is why childhood summer time memories seem to go on forever, and why we feel time gets faster as we get older.

Childhood is such a short time, but it makes a big impact in our memories compared to the things we remember as adults.

But in that moment, as a child, did time really feel longer? Is it just because as a child our brains record a lot more of these experiences?

American kids have ridiculously long summer vacations. I don’t know what yours were like, but I grew up in a very small town in Texas. I remember being bored most of the time, thinking about how I should actually be doing something. Those days when nothing happened left memories of how bored I was and numerous walks around the block to see what was going on, but nothing much more specific than that. I have a memory of them being long because nothing happened.

Then there were the days things happened. I can remember them, but not that much else about those days in particular. A few that jump out now:

  • rigging a red wagon and going down to a creek to fish for crawdads with friends
  • waking up at a friend’s house as you slowly remembered you had stayed over… and his parents have already gone to get doughnuts
  • holding a rabbit as its life slipped away after a bored kid shot it with a pellet gun for no reason
  • building a potato gun and consequently singing a friend’s eyebrows off
  • chasing a storm on my bicycle
  • being home alone, going out to feed the dog, seeing a spotlight and thinking that we were being invaded by UFOs (it was just the grand opening of the Blockbuster in town)
  • and countless other events like this I could probably remember with a little more effort

Did the summer seem so long because most if it was boring?

Did I remember the things that did happen better because it was just in contrast of the boring days?

If every day would have been packed with something fun going on, would I remember all of those things as clearly as I do the sporadic events? Would it have made the time speed up?

And regardless of whether one summer was more fun than another, that first day of school always made it seem like there had been no time lapse at all. People you hadn’t seen the whole summer seemed a little different, but nothing you didn’t get used to by the end of the day. Oh, and all the classrooms smelled really dusty. Second day of school? It felt just like the next 200.

So, it seems like when you’re in a particular moment, less new information makes it feel longer, while more makes it seem faster.

And when looking back on any period of time, regardless of how many memories you can dig out of it, it always seems like it ended in the blink of an eye.

It would seem that we can do things to make a particular moment more memorable, and even slow down, but once it’s gone, we have memories that don’t necessarily change how fast or slow we perceive the passage of time as it actually happened.

And then PsyBlog muddies the water more by wondering if our perception is just a self fulfilling prophecy:

The fact that we intuitively believe time flies when we’re having fun may have more to do with how time seems to slow when we’re not having fun. Boredom draws our attention to the passage of time which gives us the feeling that it’s slowing down.

Or—prepare yourself for a 180 degree about-face—it could all be the other way around. Perhaps you’re having fun when time flies. In other words, we assume we’ve been enjoying ourselves when we notice that time has passed quickly.

There’s evidence for this in a recent experiment by Sackett et al. (2010). Participants doing a boring task were tricked into thinking it had lasted half as long as it really had. They thought it was more enjoyable than those who had been doing exactly the same task but who hadn’t been tricked about how much time had passed.

Ultimately it may come down to how much you believe that time flies when you’re having fun. Sackett and colleagues tested this idea as well and found it was true. In their experiments, people who believed more strongly in the idea that time flies when you’re having fun were more likely to believe they were having fun when time flew. So, the whole thing could partly be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We’re going to change gears now, but afterwards, be sure to check out the links above for a better explanation about time and our perception of it.

And Now, Let’s Look at the Big Picture for Some Real Mind Blowing Fun

When you look up at the night sky, it’s easy to feel very insignificant. Sometimes, you need that. It makes any problem feel manageable. But it can also be an empowering realization of significance if you only change your perspective a little bit.

For example, I’ve always loved the Neil deGrasse Tyson quote:

“The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”

I also believe he was the one who said in an interview somewhere that all the oxygen that we breathe has been breathed by anyone who has ever lived on this earth. Wow.

There was a great infographic I just came across this week at Wait but Why? It compares time graphs from one day of our life, to recent history, to our evolution, and all the way to the birth and projected death of the universe. Yes. The death of the whole universe. Now there’s something we don’t often think about.

With the night sky, Neil deGrasse Tyson encourages us to turn insignificance into significance by focusing on how we are part of and come from the same stuff that has made the whole universe.

So is there some way to do this with time?

Instead of thinking, “We are born, and what seems like the blink of an eye we’re gone,” is there a way to think about the insignificance of our time in comparison to what might as well be infinity, so that we turn insignificance into significance?

After you have time to pick up the pieces of your brain, add your thoughts on that last question in the comments. I’d love to hear what everyone thinks.



Founder at LeafOut
LeafOut is an iPhone app that helps you easily track your experiences, fill your days with more gratitude, and look back on your life -- even if you rarely have the time to sit down and write about it.

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