Mind & Body

Your Emotions Can Alter Your Perception of Time

Do you remember how the last minutes of the school day dragged on for hours and hours? Do you recall the last time you put on a binge-worthy show before bed only to realize that it was suddenly two in the morning? Time is technically constant, but your experience of it can change dramatically. You might be surprised by all of the elements that can make time speed up or slow down.

Time On Your Mind

Your body has a way of keeping track of time — otherwise, you'd never have the unpleasant experience of waking up just before the alarm goes off. In decades past, neurologists theorized that there might be a single time-keeping mechanism in the brain, like a biological stopwatch. But as Joe Dawson and Scott Sleek report in Observer magazine, MRI-based research suggests that time isn't tracked by just one part of the brain; instead, the job is shared across a large network of neural areas. Maybe that explains why so many different factors can change how we experience time passing us by.

Time Flies When:

Everyone knows that "time flies when you're having fun." But as it turns out, it's not quite that simple. Here are the specific circumstances that make time go faster than it usually does.

You're in the Zone

Ever hear of getting in "a flow state"? In positive psychology, it's when you're fully engaged in activity, with complete focus and maximum energy. If you're a painter, a writer, a musician, or any other type of artist, you might recognize this as when you're at your most creative. But flow can refer to anything that seizes your interest, whether that's coding, accounting, dancing, or cooking. Another key feature of flow? It makes time seem to pass incredibly quickly.

Then there's hyperfocus, which you might think of as a flow's evil twin, or at least a mirror reflection. That's when something has all of your attention but doesn't demand a lot of effort (think of zoning out in front of the TV). It doesn't feel nearly as good as flow does, but it makes time feel like it passes just as quickly.

You're Hungry

Okay, hunger doesn't exactly change the passage of time. But that sure seems like one of the main takeaways of this 2012 study by Philip Gale and Brian Pool. They were actually looking to see how "approach motivation" — the pursuit of goals, positive experiences, and necessary resources — affected the perception of time. To do so, they showed participants a series of images and asked them to say whether they were shown for a long or a short amount of time (all of the images were shown for either 400 or 1,2o0 milliseconds). There were three types of images: neutral ones like geometric shapes, "low-approach motivation" ones like flowers, and "high-approach motivation" ones like desserts.

Not only were people much more likely to say that pictures of desserts were only shown for a short period of time, but the effect was also more strongly pronounced when those participants hadn't eaten recently. Just to drive the point home, they gave another set of participants the expectation that they would actually receive those desserts at the end of the study. Sure enough, those who were told they would get a tray of the items they saw at the end also reported that the images passed before their eyes more quickly.

Time Stops When:

Sure, when you're bored, time seems to go by more slowly. And we've already touched on a few of the things that seem to make time stand still. But research has shown that some of the things that make time slow down aren't as negative as you might expect.

You're Awestruck

In a study carried out by researchers from Stanford and the University of Minnesota, participants were exposed to extremely high-definition videos of two different types of scenarios: one that was meant to elicit feelings of awe, and one that was meant to elicit feelings of happiness. The first included images of waterfalls, whales, and astronauts floating in space. The second featured explosions of confetti, parades, and people in brightly colored clothes and face paint. Afterward, the first group indicated feeling like time was more abundant than the second group.

Similarly, just the experience of being in nature can make time seem to pass more slowly — people could accurately estimate the length of a walk in an urban environment but persistently overestimated how long a walk in a more natural setting had taken.

You're Afraid

If you've ever been in an adrenaline-pumping, life-threatening situation, you know that this is true (although it's important to realize that you don't actually experience everything more slowly; it only feels that way). What's interesting is that the effect extends after the frightening event has passed.

In a 2011 study, researchers exposed recruits to one of three different types of film clips: one neutral (weather reports and financial news), one sad (scenes from "Philadelphia" or "City of Angels"), and one frightening (scenes from "Scream" or "The Shining"). Before and after viewing these clips, each group was also asked to estimate the duration of a flashing blue light. The sad and neutral groups gave the same estimations for the pre- and post-show flashes. But the people in the fear group tended to overestimate how long the blue light flashed. The threat of Jack Nicholson was gone, but their system was still pumped up and seeing everything in slow-mo. Maybe take a horror flick on your next vacation and see what happens!

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So that's how time feels — but how does it work? Find out in Carlo Rovelli's "The Order of Time" (free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 29, 2018

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