Humanity | MPI Philosophy

Our Mind’s Time

There are many situations in life that cause us to feel like time is moving more quickly or more slowly. 

Does time fly when you’re having fun? In 1990, William Friedman published a review of 70 time experiments, including a list of phenomena that occur during duration time estimates. Several of his findings along with those from other researchers are presented below.

If you are listening to music that you enjoy, does this mean that time will speed up or slow down? Kellaris (1992), researched this and found that, when listeners enjoyed the music more, time seemed to slow down. The researchers suggested that this may be due the fact that when we enjoy music we listen more carefully and are more likely to “get lost in it” and that greater attention leads to perception of a longer interval of time.

Many people that experienced life-threatening situations like skydiving often report that time seemed to slow down. Is this the result of processing more information? Stetson et al. (2007) researched this by making participants in an experiment stare at a special chronometer while free-falling 50 meters into a net. They found was that time resolution did not increase and that the participants were not able to distinguish shorter periods of time when in danger. They did find that the participants remember the time as longer because they recorded more of the experience. Life-threatening experiences make us  pay much closer attention and this creates the feeling that there is more happening in less time.  

We have all experienced days that were enjoyable from beginning to end and, by the end of the day, it seemed like the first thing you did that day was a very long time ago. Enjoyment caused time to stretch. The fact that we intuitively feel like time flies when we’re having fun may be the result of the fact that time seems to advance extremely slowly when we not having fun. The boredom or a lack of any interesting distraction direct their attention to the passing of time and causes us to feel like it’s slowing down. 

Or, is it the other way around? Maybe we assume we’ve been enjoying ourselves when we notice that time has passed quickly. In an experiment by Sackett et al. (2010), the participants that were performing a boring task were tricked into thinking that 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.

It seems that the “perception” of time may depend on your “perspective”. Sackett and colleagues tested this idea as well and found it was true. People in their experiments 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.

Self-regulation seems to stretch time. If we are actively attempting to suppress or enhance our emotional reactions, psychologists have found that time seems to slow down. Vohs and Schmeichel (2003) had participants watch an 11 minute clip from the film Terms of Endearment. Some participants were asked to remain emotionally neutral while watching the clip and others were told to act naturally. Those who tried to suppress their emotions estimated the clip had lasted longer than it really had.

The emotions we feel in the moment directly affect our perception of time. Negative emotions seem to direct time to people’s attention and make it seem longer. Research by Wittman et al on anxious cancer patients suggests that time stretches out for them.

Demanding our attention

If you can remember a situation in your life where it seemed like time was dragging on forever it is likely that you were doing something that, for whatever reason, demanded your attention. It may have been because you are doing something new, something detailed, something inspiring or something stressful. Focusing on what you are doing “slows down time”, or, at least, your perception of it.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman says that when we receive lots of new information, it takes our brains extra time to process it all. The longer this processing takes, the longer that period of time feels. When we’re in life-threatening situations “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.”

Further, if your brain doesn’t have to process a large amount of new information, time seems to move faster, therefore the passing of time will feel like it is faster. 

Memory of Time

The perception of time is also influenced by memory – the more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. “This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” says Eagleman. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain processes, and the more quickly time seems to pass. 

“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.”

The best example of this is the so-called oddball effect—an optical illusion that Eagleman has shown in his lab. It consisted of a series of simple images flashing on a computer screen. One image, a plain brown shoe, is presented many times and occasionally a flower would appear. Although observers felt like the images appeared for different lengths of time, Eagleman was able to show that all the pictures appeared for the same length of time. The only difference was the degree of attention paid to them. 

Therefore, if your brain is put into a situation where it needs to process a lot of information over the course of the day and then, on the following day, received very little new information to process, the first day will same much longer than the first even though they were exactly the same.

Friedman states that a time period seems longer if remembered in detail, and shorter if remembered only in outline. Similarly, many events during a time period lead to overestimates of duration. Friedman explains these phenomena with people’s tendency to assume that it takes longer for many events to occur than for a few to occur.

Age and time 

Perceiving time as accelerating as we age is common. One a large study, Dr. Marc Wittmann of the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health, in Germany, interviewed 499 German and Austrian subjects that ranged in age from 14 to 94 years old. He asked them how quickly time seemed to pass during the previous week, month, year and decade. Interestingly, there were few differences related to age with one exception when researchers asked about the 10-year interval, older people were far more likely than the younger people to report that the last decade had passed quickly.

Generally, most of us perceive short intervals of time similarly regardless of age, so why do older people look back at long segments of their lives and feel it’s all speeding up?

As we age, this perception that time is flying by more quickly becomes much more noticeable. This is because the more we age, the more often we come into contact with information our brains have already processed. By contrast, young children are experiencing the opposite phenomena where a much larger amount of the information processed by their brains is new and requires more time to be processed.

Friedman also states that time goes by quicker as you age. Researchers have shown that the relationship between age and time perception is logarithmic, meaning that people measure time relative to their age.

One day to an eleven-year-old would be approximately 1/4,000 of their life, while one day to a 55-year-old would be approximately 1/20,000 of their life. This helps to explain why a random day may therefore appear longer for a young child than for an adult

I prefer to adopt a “half-life” concept. If you live to 80 years old then the second half of your life (40 years) will feel like half of the first half, or, 20 years. This is purely anecdotal and based on my perception. It helps me to realize that I am not going to die tomorrow (I hope) but I don’t “really” have 40 more years, I have much less and therefore I should act accordingly. Acting accordingly means enjoying (including being grateful for) what I have now because I will not be enjoying it for much longer.

This concept is not intended to be applied with an absolute number like 50% in my case. This number just reflects how it feels to me. You should think about how it feels to you and apply your number. If you use 50% then when you are 20, the next 20 years will feel like 10 years, when you are 30 the next 30 years will feel like 15 years, when you are 40 the next 40 years will feel like 20 years. This is something that should be researched by the iimagine community. 

The important point here is, once again, perception versus reality. If the last 10 years felt like 5 years to me AND my perception is my reality (not in the scientific sense) then it was 5 years. Which of these two is “more” real? The net result is that, at the age of 45, I am living like I only have a few years to live. I’m NOT acting like each day is the last day of my life. Although it is interesting to think about what you would do if this was your last day on earth it is not much more than interesting. It does not help you to decide how to live the best way possible for the “actual” time you have left. On the other hand, the “actual” time you have left will feel like much less than it will be according to time measured by a clock so you do NOT have as much time as you think. If you get nothing else from this chapter – get this.

Aging

Man people complain about aging. This is obviously a function of time. Or, is it a function of something much deeper and more important? At the time of writing this book, I’m 45 years old. Although I occasionally joke about getting old I can honestly say that I’m mostly unconcerned with age. The more I consider why I am unconcerned more I found myself questioning what I had to show for my 45 years. While I cannot claim to leave it the perfect life very content with the fact that I managed to achieve some lofty goals that meant a lot to me. In fact, the only large goal left for me is the iimagine project. Once it reaches a point where it is these self-correcting and self-organizing system that I envision it to be then I feel like my time will be up. 

If I had to do it all again I would obviously do a better job if I started with the knowledge I have now but that is an irrelevant hypothetical. If I had to trade my position in life now with that of a 20-year-old I would not take it because I would be extremely nervous about the possibility, I would say likelihood, that I would not be happy with what I would be by the age of 45.

The point I’m attempting to make in relation to time and aging is that I feel positive about the things that I’ve been able to do with my life up to this point in time and I feel negative about the physical deterioration that accompanies aging. However, the positives arising from the things that I’ve done with my life far outweigh the negatives associated with physical deterioration. I’m suggesting that people that have a problem with aging have a problem with what they have done or not done with their lives up to this point in time. The physical deterioration is a reminder that time has passed and a realization that passed dreams, not only have not been achieved but will not be achieved. 

As always, the first step in addressing this extraordinarily difficult realization is recognizing that it exists. The next step is realizing that the only solution is pursuing the biggest and best dreams that you can imagine right now. Time transforms into a cancer when it is not accompanied by action designed to make you happy.

Next article in this series: “How To Make Your Time Last Longer”

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