The Science of Time Perception: Stop It Slipping Away by Doing New Things

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time perception - watchCan you remember a period in your life when, if you look back on it now, time seemed to stretch on forever? When a week seemed like four, or an hour seemed like it went on for days? What were you doing during that period?

Chances are, you were probably doing something (or a whole bunch of somethings) that was brand new to you and demanded your attention. The funny thing is, by focusing on what you were doing, you actually slowed down time (or how your brain perceived that time, anyway).

Neuroscientist David Eagleman used this great example to explain how time perception works:

Yet “brain time,” as Eagleman calls it, is intrinsically subjective. “Try this exercise,” he suggests in a recent essay. “Put this book down and go look in a mirror. Now move your eyes back and forth, so that you’re looking at your left eye, then at your right eye, then at your left eye again. When your eyes shift from one position to the other, they take time to move and land on the other location. But here’s the kicker: you never see your eyes move.” There’s no evidence of any gaps in your perception—no darkened stretches like bits of blank film—yet much of what you see has been edited out. Your brain has taken a complicated scene of eyes darting back and forth and recut it as a simple one: your eyes stare straight ahead. Where did the missing moments go?

Before I explain these time-bending powers you didn’t know you had, let’s back up a bit and look at how our brains perceive time normally.

How we perceive time

Our ‘sense’ of time is unlike our other senses—i.e. taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. With time, we don’t so much sense it as perceive it.

Essentially, our brains take a whole bunch of information from our senses and organize it in a way that makes sense to us, before we ever perceive it. So what we think is our sense of time is actually just a whole bunch of information presented to us in a particular way, as determined by our brains:

When our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated.

Even stranger, it isn’t just a single area of the brain that controls our time perception—it’s done by a whole bunch of brain areas, unlike our common five senses, which can each be pinpointed to a single, specific area.

time perception - senses in the brain

So here’s how that process affects the length of time we perceive:

When we receive lots of new information, it takes our brains a while to process it all. The longer this processing takes, the longer that period of time feels:

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.”

The same thing happens when we hear enjoyable music, because “greater attention leads to perception of a longer period of time.”

Conversely, if your brain doesn’t have to process lots of new information, time seems to move faster, so the same amount of time will actually feel shorter than it would otherwise. This happens when you take in lots of information that’s familiar, because you’ve processed it before. Your brain doesn’t have to work very hard, so it processes time faster.

Interestingly though, that doesn’t mean doing something over and over again, can’t have a significant impact on your brain, in fact practice can fundamentally rewire your brain, too.

time perception in the brain

Eagleman described it like this:

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,” Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, 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 had shown me in his lab. It consisted of a series of simple images flashing on a computer screen. Most of the time, the same picture was repeated again and again: a plain brown shoe. But every so often a flower would appear instead. To my mind, the change was a matter of timing as well as of content: the flower would stay onscreen much longer than the shoe. But Eagleman insisted that all the pictures appeared for the same length of time. The only difference was the degree of attention that I paid to them. The shoe, by its third or fourth appearance, barely made an impression. The flower, more rare, lingered and blossomed, like those childhood summers.

So if your brain got hit with loads of new information over the course of a day, and the following day received hardly any new information, the first day would seem much longer than the first, even though they were exactly the same.

New experiences also happen to improve how we learn and remember information, which I’ve explored before.

How age affects time perception

Of course, we don’t normally notice this process taking place; all we notice is the weird feeling of a day being really long, even though we know it was just 24 hours.

As we age, this process comes into play even more, making time seem to fly by much faster. This is because the more we age, the more often we come into contact with information our brains have already processed. This familiar information takes a shortcut through our brains, giving us the feeling that time is speeding up and passing us by.

For young children, it’s easy to see how this would work in reverse, since the majority of information their brains are processing would be brand new, and require more time to process.

How to make your day last longer

Learning about the brain is always fascinating, but it’s even better when you can put that learning into practice. That’s why I love this idea of time perception so much—we can use it to our advantage fairly easily.

According to the research, if we feed our brains more new information, the extra processing time required will make us feel like time is moving more slowly. And supposing it’s true that perception is reality, we’d effectively be making our days longer. How awesome is that?

Here are five ways you could put this into practice immediately. If you have more ideas, I’d love to hear them!

1. Keep learning

Learning new things is a pretty obvious way to pass your brain new information on a regular basis. If you’re constantly reading, trying new activities or taking courses to learn new skills, you’ll have a wealth of ‘newness’ at your fingertips to help you slow down time.

2. Visit new places

A new environment can send a mass of information rushing to your brain—smells, sounds, people, colors, textures. Your brain has to interpret all of this. Exposing your brain to new environments regularly will give it plenty of work to do, letting you enjoy longer-seeming days.

This doesn’t necessarily mean world travels, though. Working from a cafe or a new office could do the trick. As could trying a new restaurant for dinner or visiting a friend’s house you haven’t been to.

3. Meet new people

We all know how much energy we put into interactions with other people. Unlike objects, people are complex and take more effort to ‘process’ and understand.

Meeting new people, then, is a good workout for our brains. That kind of interaction offers us lots of new information to make sense of, like names, voices, accents, facial features and body language.

4. Try new activities

Have you ever played dodgeball on trampolines? How about jumped from a plane or raced cheese down a hill?

Doing new stuff means you have to pay attention. Your brain is on high alert and your senses are heightened, because you’re taking in new sensations and feelings at a rapid rate. As your brain takes in and notices every little detail, that period of time seems to stretch out longer and longer in your mind.

5. Be spontaneous

Surprises are like new activities: they make us pay attention and heighten our senses. Anyone who hates surprises can attest to that.

If you want to stretch out your day, this is a good way to do it. Try surprising your brain with new experiences spontaneously—the less time you give your brain to prepare itself, the less familiar it will be with any information it receives, and the longer it will take to process that time period. In fact, overwhelming your brain, which we discussed before, is one of the best ways to make time slow down.

Can you think of any other way to send new information to your brain and make it slow down time?

Image credits: Marco Bernardini, The Brain Bank, Mayo Clinic

  • Chris

    I always thought time perception was dealt with by Shatner’s Bassoon.

  • Mahdi

    This is exactly how I feel.

  • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua Zero

    Awesome article!

    I have a question: So why does time go more slowly when you’re doing something boring, regardless of how familiar it is?

    • Baustin213

      Yeah, I was kind of caught up on that too. What happened to, “time flies when you’re having fun”? The article seemed to say that your brain processes information more quickly a 2nd or 3rd time, which is what makes days seem to drag on… but isn’t that the same as slowing time down?

      • Belle

        I wondered this while writing the article, as well! As far as I could tell from the research I read, I think the difference comes from how your brain remembers the time later. So when you look back on the week and it seems like it was much longer than 7 days, that’s your brain interpreting time differently.

        When you’re counting down the infinite hour (http://www.craigslist.org/about/best/sfo/58115777.html) the time seems to drag, but your brain knows the hour is just as long as all the others. I think that’s the difference.

        • brian smyth

          How come i have a hard time remembering anything

          • https://www.facebook.com/alex.richardson.921025 Alex Richardson

            It’s the marijuana, Brian.

          • Bishop Coxcomb

            Too many hard drugs?

          • doug

            I used to know but forgot

    • Edwin Adrianta

      Hi, I think we still have to differentiate between “immediate perception of time” and “recalled perception of time” … During a boring day, we pay attention a lot on our surrounding on what to do or what could be done – thus we perceived longer time spent (this is immediate perception). Contrary, when we have a busy period that makes us ignore anything else (e.g. in the office), we feel the day shorter. But when we recall the experience let’s say one year later, we could recall a lot of things from the office and we perceived it as long standing experience.

    • bob

      Focus.. When Our Minds Don’t Want to Do Or be Somewhere Its The exact opposite, and Intention means the difference between light speed and time moving Slowly.

  • andypahwa

    You guys have a great knack of posting/putting together some of the most interesting content. Keep it up!

    • Belle

      Thanks so much!

  • smc

    You missed one – have children. The first few days/weeks/months of your childs life is compressed years of novelty, experience, and reflection.

    • Belle

      Ah, I bet! I definitely missed the thought of being a parent, especially for your first child. I’m sure that’s full of new experiences constantly.

    • I_dont_see_this_working

      …and also those years seem to fly by like a shinkansen, although you are learning and experiencing new things hourly, which is in direct contradiction to the postulation by the writer and her source. (My hypothesis is that the lack of sleep induced by children damages brain’s ability (hippocampal function and sleep-deprivation, anyone?) to store long term memories, leading to “fewer samples of events” from that time-period, leading to an illusion of time moving faster, but I dont know).

      I remember childhood summers feeling as very long due to them being actually quite boring, sometimes waiting for them to end. I experienced same things over and over again, which with your postulation should have made them feel shorter. When I have been studying new things in the Uni, with hard time pressure, when I wrote my PhD, when I have been burdened with new work with new tasks I have to do, the time just flies. These are all “new things” I am doing, and the time feels “less” than ever.

      As so many psychological theories, this one also has interesting
      thinking behind it, but it crumbles away by common everyday experience
      and the complexity of brain function very fast, being limited to giving
      hints of working only for certain limited, laboratory-like situations.
      Brains are not that simple, experience of time is not that simple;
      storing, retaining and recollecting memories and perceived length of
      time from memory is not that simple…etc.

      Nice article, but the theory just does not fly, sorry.

      • Belle

        Great point about the brain. It really is complex and even the wealth of knowledge we have about it now is only just scratching the surface. There is a long, long way to go before we understand it fully (if we ever can!).

        I think I mentioned this in another comment, but as far as I can tell from all the research I found, this theory relates more to how you remember time—for instance, when the week is over and you look back on it, if you’ve done lots of new things it might feel like it stretched on for ages.

        The phenomenon of time flying when you’re having fun, or very busy, etc. is more about how you feel in the moment.

        I’m no neuroscientist, but I think that’s the difference!

        • Lennshu

          I was wondering the same thing as I feel that time passes quickly when I’m busy. But I think you’re right that the theory is based on how we remember, not how we experience in the moment.

          Which would mean that how we experience time, and how we remember has an inverse relationship — when we are mentally engaged the day feels shorter, but is remembered to be longer?

  • deshantm

    Perception of time is also affected by anticipation of something. If you are waiting for and expecting something to come, it takes longer. For example, when you are a kid, Christmas or your birthday take forever to come because you are in such anticipation. (When you are older those things come faster). Other examples include the ride to some place (the opposite effect on the way back home) and waiting for the end of the
    work day.

    On the other hand, time can go by when you get into a zone. For me, time can really fly by fast when I am learning something new. The effect that you are referring to in the article may be a bit different for a learner like me.

    • Belle

      Good point—anticipation certainly makes us feel differently about time!

  • Sandra Henson

    Fascinating article and liked the concept and found myself
    asking the same questions as the previous respondents – I was also anticipating
    something to take back to the workplace and help busy managers – are there
    other gems to come related to this?

    • Belle

      Ah busy managers—not enough time in the day certainly seems a common complaint from busy workplaces, doesn’t it? Perhaps there are some small ways to work new experiences into your days, such as different routes or locations for lunch?

      • doug

        The higher a fever the slower the person perceives time and children have higher temperatures but I perceive time as slower as an adult and don’t know why. Things a week ago sometimes seem like months ago to me.

  • http://lisadelay.com/blog Lisa Colon DeLay

    I love your articles. thank you!

    • Belle

      Thanks Lisa!

  • http://raymondduke.com/ Raymond Duke

    Time has always been an interesting subject for me. The reason is due to no one controls time — time is the ultimate dictator; it can’t be stopped, reset, or manipulated. Time is also consistent and predictable. One second is always one second, etc. Time is old; it’s been around since…the beginning of time.

    Another interesting piece of info about time is related to how time is perceived by different cultures. For example, I’ve heard of a tribe that has their own take on past and present experiences. This culture assoicates the past to what is in front of you and your future as what’s behind you. The reason this makes sense is because the past is something you can see; you can look at your past and learn from it. The future is unknown; it can’t be seen, therefore it is behind you, hidden from your eyesight.

    Thanks for the read. It’s now time for me to get back to work.

    • Madira

      One small correction, one second is not always one second. Time depends on gravity. The stronger gravity, the slower time. It is why time for satellites flows faster and a correction is needed. On bigger planets or Sun or closer to black holes time is definitely slower almost close to zero! Does time also flow slower for weighty people than for light ones? ;-)

      • http://raymondduke.com/ Raymond Duke

        I didn’t know that. Thank you for teaching me something new today. I am not sure if time is slower for “weighty” people, but I do notice a difference in terms of their mobility when compared to “non weighty” people.

      • Jawwad Zaidi

        Hmm, interesting. I was wondering, is it possible that when we’re young and our mass is little as compared to our mass as adults, gravity has a stronger hold on us and time seems to pass by slower. The exact opposite as we grow older, gain mass and time whizzes by. What do you say?

        • Belle

          interesting question. I’d have to explore the science behind how gravity affects our perception of time before I could say, but it might be worth looking into!

    • Belle

      Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts—it’s fascinating how something as common as time can be approached very differently in different cultures.

  • http://devurls.co/ devurls

    This article seems to have a much more positive outlook on time, than the conventional outlook that ‘times flies when you’re having fun’ (<– how unpleasant!) This article seems to have postulated some of the same kinds of things I've wondered about time (mainly the 5 suggested things to make your day last longer)

    • Belle

      Hopefully those suggestions will help you stretch out your day! :)

  • http://ww.projectaddapp.com/ Kouris Kalligas

    I really enjoyed reading this. Someone below said it as well but I’ll mention it again: I love your app but it seems that you have a team that rocks and amazing posts…! Really, keep it up!

  • Root

    I felt good reading it , Thanks so much.

    But i have a question : Actually when i do something boring ( watching TV , Xbox or anything else ) it takes ages to pass (time ) but when learning new stuff or meeting friennds or doing skydiving it’s passing like wow, very fast … You said in your article that meeting friends , doing new stuff slows time i guess that doesn’t work for me , does it ? ;) THANKS

  • Shawn J

    You touched on the concept briefly in one of your examples (dodgeball on a trampoline) – take two things that are very familiar to you and do them together. Read a book while sitting in a hot tub, have your morning cup of coffee in the shower, play your favorite video game with your favorite music. From my experience combining two even very familiar things into one activity gets your brain into this “new time” headspace because it isn’t used to processing the information from both activities at the same time. I’d love to see actual science experiments (perhaps they’ve already been done) where they map the areas of the brain triggered by very common activities separately and then map them again while you combine those two together. The great thing here is that the number of possible good combinations between all your favorite things is very high – giving everyone a wealth of opportunities to experiment with. :-)

    • Lili

      I’d like to see those too

  • http://www.TanyaSmithOnline.com/ Tanya Smith

    This is now one of my all time favorite posts about time. Thanks for sharing these tips. I’m especially interested in testing out #5 because I’m such a planner. Sounds like a bit more spontaneity may help “lengthen” my day and boost some creative thoughts too.

  • Celine Holzer

    Build things, take up a new hobby, learn a new skill. eg. learn to sew/knit, learn to ski, learn to drive a manual car, take a trip to a nearby town with only 50 or 100 dollars and see how far you can get that money to go (would that get you a place to sleep for the night [of course it could] but can you get food, drinks, new experiences, etc as well?)

    • Belle

      Great suggestions, Celine! There are certainly loads of new things you can do if you think about it. I think learning new skills and traveling are both sure winners for novelty.

  • Max Friedenberg

    When I’m in a state mind in which nearly everything seems to take on new significance and meaning (reinterpretation), time seems to slow to crawl. I have experienced week long days. In death, the last second can seem like years as life clings to meaning and reinterpret the self. The last milliseconds my last thousands of years.

  • http://simplejosh.com/ Joshua Pitzalis

    I also think that your perception of time is much slower when you are younger because a given period of time (lets say a year) is much larger in relation to total experience of time than it would be when you are older. For example, 1 year when you are 10 is a tenth of your entire life but a year when you are 70 is just a 70th of your life. So, I think total comparable time is also factors into how we perceive time.

  • Usud

    Here`s a way to make your day seem longer. It was proposed by a philosopher, I can`t remember his name right now. Here it goes.

    If you are left handed and you do everyday stuff with that hand, try doing it all with your right hand (and vice versa). And I mean EVERY LITTLE THING you don`t even think about anymore. You`ll pay a lot more attention on everything, and I guess that day will be very very long. :)

  • Ricky

    Doing a thing in a different way can make an old thing seem last longer & interesting.

  • ManhattanMango

    I stopped reading at “So what we think is our sense of time is actually just a whole bunch of information presented to us in a particular way…”

    I don’t think I’ve ever read anything as poorly worded as this.

  • chem geek

    yea I kinda get what your saying in this article but at the same time almost the opposite applies as well, when learning something new or doing a fun activity, getting absorbed into something, time “flys by”, but on the other side of it I believe being zen and in the moment makes time seem slower, and its also very likely that all it really comes down to is a matter of perception. If you focus and learn how to perceive time slower it can become a art just like meditation, the art of perceiving the here and now.

  • Aditya Aserkar

    Interesting read… I had one wondering;
    Why is it that when we travel, we tend to not register the details that we see, and go into some sort of nostalgia mode? We see things around but they kind of fall on the blind eye.

  • Larry

    Raced cheese down hill? I once raced cheese to the bathroom. Now, that was a long day!

  • WhatsNew13

    i try to keep time as it is rather than going deep into it because i dont feel educated enough to handle the ones that are aware of it. have been aware of it. you meet the real person when you mess with time.

  • happy

    My days have lately had more time in them to fill up with awesome activities that are more aligned with what i’ve always wanted to do (working with film, meeting new musicians, planting, editing, reading).. For someone who usually has time slip away, I’ve enjoyed this immensely. After reading this article, i can appreciate that, even though it’s ‘in my mind’, it’s not just ‘in my mind’. Hope it continues.

    And it’s different than being bored and having time lag. It’s more like a surprise that when you look up, you could swear that more time has passed but you have more day left-which is such a new thing for me.

  • Ryan

    Yes, if you want to truly experience this, jump from a plane. I remember one of my first jumps where I wanted someone to jump out a second after me. To me, they seemed to take like 3 or 4 seconds to jump. Afterward, I asked them what the hold up was, and they said there was no hold up. Watched the video and sure enough, she was out less than a second after me.

  • Psy

    Lsd makes an hour seem like days. Everyone should try it.