Why Do We Perceive Time the Way We Do?

Time dictates our lives — we don’t have enough of it, we lose track of it, we need to manage it—yet most of us seldom consider how our brains process it. In “Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception,” author and psychology lecturer Claudia Hammond delves into how our perception of time can influence the way we think and behave. Here, Hammond explains how we can understand, and even harness, time to our advantage.

Brain World: What role does emotion play in time perception?

Claudia Hammond: The sensation that time is passing either fast or slowly is something that we construct for ourselves in our minds. Emotion is one of the chief factors affecting that perception. People who’ve been in a life-threatening situation like a car accident often describe the incident feeling as though it took ages, when in fact it was very fast. Extreme fear makes time feel as though it’s slowed down.

BW: So many people can relate to the holiday paradox — the idea that a vacation passes way too quickly, yet looking back you feel like you’ve been gone forever. So which is it?

CH: The reason for the holiday paradox is that we constantly judge time passing in two different ways: We ask ourselves how fast it feels right now, and we also look back after an event and judge it retrospectively. Usually these assessments match up, but in certain situations, such as holidays, they don’t. Holidays are packed with new and unusual experiences, which makes the days entertaining, so at the time they pass by fast. But when you look back on a holiday, you have created far more new memories for yourself than in a routine week at work. Because we use the quantity of new memories to judge how much time has passed, once again time warps and we feel as though we’ve been away for ages.

BW: Many people bemoan the fact that time speeds up as they get older. What is your favorite explanation for this?

CH: Sometimes people say it’s because when you’re eight, a year is an eighth of your life, and when you’re 40 it’s a fortieth, so the time feels faster. But this is really only a description of what happens rather than an explanation. Time feels fastest for middle-aged people. By very old age it slows down again. And even with middle-aged people, they don’t describe the days as going fast as much as the weeks, months, and years. Going back to the holiday paradox and the two ways in which we view time can give us an explanation. In middle age, there are more routines and fewer firsts than in your youth. The years become harder to differentiate from each other as you get older and fewer new memories are formed, making you feel as though not much time has passed.

BW: Why is memory so integral to future thinking?

CH: In order to be able to think about the future, we rely on our memories of the past. These allow us to be wildly imaginative, to plan ahead and to picture events which have never happened before. This explains why our memories so often let us down. We need them to be flexible in order to be able, at will, to piece together all sorts of unrelated memories. If I asked you to imagine a mouse flying to the moon on an orange toothbrush, you can picture it immediately by linking fragments of memory.

BW: Can we change our perception of time if we feel like it’s whizzing by?

CH: There are many ways we can change our perception of time. But first I’d question whether time whizzing by is as bad as we think. Many of the situations where research reveals that time goes slowly aren’t very desirable — if people are depressed, lonely, bored. So if the weeks feel as though they’re whizzing by, this might well be a sign that you have a busy, fulfilling life. But if you do decide you want to slow down time, you need to recreate the holiday paradox. To make a weekend feel longer, fill it with new activities. The busier you are, the more new memories you’ll create for yourself, and by Monday morning, the previous Friday will feel like long ago. The only downside is that you have to trade rest for activity.

BW: How are TV, computers, and video games working toward the seemingly quick passage of time?

CH: When we watch TV, play video games, or surf the internet, we often underestimate how much time is passing. Perhaps this is part of the appeal of these activities. They take us outside time into another world.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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