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Our perception of time can be affected many factors, including age, culture, and even what event we ...
2018-12-05 10:00:00

Are We There Yet?
Why Our Perception of Time Changes

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Are We There Yet?
Are We There Yet?

It can fly, it can drag. One minute is not equal to another, at least not to the human brain. Our perception of time depends on our wellbeing, age, the sum of our life experiences, and even on whether we’re waiting for Christmas presents or a dentist appointment.

Read in 11 minutes

Carved pumpkins have already been replaced with snowflake patterns. Letters to Santa get longer with each passing day, and their authors – my children – slowly but surely seem to be transforming into that annoying donkey from the Shrek movies, who keeps on asking: Are we there yet? “No, not yet,” I say. “So how long until Christmas?” insists my son, undeterred. Do they feel the passage of time differently than I do? Work, deadlines, more deadlines; it seems like I only came back from my summer holidays yesterday, and Christmas is already just around the corner. When it finally arrives, it will be gone quicker than you can say Santa.

“Why does the time before Christmas drag on forever, and then the holidays pass so quickly?” This is the question bothering all children, not just my offspring. So I decide to ask Dr Rafał Albiński, a psychologist from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw who researches the human perception of time.

Does fear freeze the seconds?

“It's a matter of attention. When we spend our time on enjoyable activities – talking, eating, unwrapping presents and so on – instead of constantly checking the time, we suddenly realize that three days have passed. Before we know it, our holidays are over,” says Albiński. “It works the other way around, too. When we stand in the queue to buy Christmas gifts, our attention is not captured by anything in particular, so we focus on the passing of time,” adds the scientist. Time goes slowly, especially for impulsive people (such as my children!). Marc Wittmann, a German psychologist from the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, once asked a group of people to sit in a room for seven-and-a-half minutes doing absolutely nothing. Afterwards, they had to estimate how much time had passed. Those with low impulsivity scores from previous tests figured they had spent two, five or seven minutes. But highly impulsive volunteers were convinced that they’d had to wait for up to 20 minutes!

One minute is not really equal to another, at least not to human brains. Our perception of time depends not only on what we are busy doing at that particular moment, but also on our age, the sum of our life experiences, and emotions. “If I show you a sad face for a second on the screen, and then I show you a happy face for one second, the happy face will actually seem to last a little bit longer. If I show you an angry face, that one will seem to last a little longer, too. And that’s because our emotions seem to alter our sense of duration of how long things last,” explains Alan Burdick, author of the bestselling book Why Time Flies, in his lecture for Google Talks.

“When we feel fear, our attention is more focused. It’s a result of evolutionary adaptation, making us pay attention to possible dangers,” says Albiński. This is why during moments of extreme fear, we think time has slowed down or even frozen.

“My first thought was: ‘Where did this car come from?’, then, ‘Hit the brakes’… I heard the screech of tyres, and I knew we were about to crash. In my head, I could see one thought after another: ‘My parents will be furious, where is my boyfriend, this is going to hurt’. So much had happened during those ten to fifteen seconds, I thought fifteen minutes had passed,” said the victim of a car crash, described by professor of sociology Michael Flaherty in his book A Watched Pot. The girl quoted above is not an exception. According to case studies carried out by the University of New South Wales in Australia, those who are afraid of skydiving feel that the jump lasted for a longer time than that estimated by those who don’t fear heights. Does time really slow down in those moments, or is it just an illusion of the brain? Professor David Eagleman from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston decided to research it. Instead of skydiving, test group members had to jump 45 metres down onto a safety net. They were asked to estimate the time of their own fall and those of other people. Even though all jumps lasted approximately three seconds, respondents believed that their own fall took on average 33% longer than those of other people.

Perhaps this slowing of time is actually real? What if our brains switch into a slow-motion mode, like in a film? In order to verify this hypothesis, Eagleman’s research team put special watches on the respondents’ hands. During the jump, the watch screen displayed sequences of numbers, but did it too quickly to be read in normal circumstances. The researchers assumed that if time really does slow down during moments of fear, the respondents would be able to read the numbers at that moment. Unfortunately, nobody managed to achieve such a feat, proving the hypothesis wrong. “Humans are not wired like Neo in The Matrix, where he dodges bullets in slow motion,” quips Eagleman. It’s not our brains, but our memory that’s really responsible. In moments of fear, a part of our brain called the amygdala is particularly active, which helps it accumulate a staggering amount of information in a very short period of time. “That’s why traumatic memories are more vivid and full of details. And the more memories, the longer the event seems,” argues Eagleman. This is not the only time-related illusion we experience in our daily lives. I’m certain at least some of you have noticed that the older we get, the faster time seems to fly. This phenomenon is also a responsibility of memory.

86 Christmases

“Christmas again… Where did all that time go?” sighs my 86-year-old grandmother Henia every year when we sit at the table on Christmas Eve. My children – Marta, aged nine; Marcin, aged seven – stare at their great-granny with disbelief: What are you talking about? A year is an awfully long time! This puzzling dissonance was already examined in the 17th century, by the French philosopher Paul Janet. We all perceive time relatively, in proportion to the length of our lives to date, explained Janet. One year is just 1/86th of our grandmother’s life, while for her great-granddaughter, it will amount to one ninth of her entire life!

The perception of time might also be connected to the degree of routine in our daily lives. When we are young, every day brings us new experiences: first steps, first words, learning the alphabet, the first time Santa brings us gifts. Over the course of years, new experiences are replaced with repetitive tasks: work, home, work, home. The amount of new information registered by our brains as extraordinary goes down. “In youth we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day… But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse,” wrote the 19th-century scientist William James. “Time passes differently in real life from how we remember it,” agrees Albiński. “A winter break full of new, thrilling experiences – seeing a lot of new places, learning to ski, making new friends and so on – will take up a lot of space in our brains, making it seem very long. And in reverse: a month filled with nothing but work will shrink and congeal into a small lump.”

When my children ask their great-grandma to tell them how she spent Christmas as a child, Henia usually recounts the war she survived in her youth. She weaves stories of the milk her mother secretly carried out from the German dairy factory, and of her only doll Gretchen, which they had to give to a doctor to pay for Henia’s father’s pneumonia medicine. Those fresh, first-time experiences, especially when linked to strong emotions, are remembered best. According to scientists, those are the memories we’re most keen to revisit. “Research shows that most people can best remember events that took place between the ages of 15 and 25. That’s our ‘peak memory time’ when we often reach a lot of milestones: final exams, university, first job, finding love, having children. Over time, those new events become less frequent, so we make fewer strong memories,” explains Albiński.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

It doesn’t always go that way. A shift can happen if we reach some milestones later in life. I met a lot of people who experienced this while researching an article on Universities of the Third Age – ladies who had learned Spanish and travelled across Spain in their seventies. When I say this to Albiński, he nods in agreement. “When the deputy chairwoman of such a university in Słupsk told me how many weekly classes they have, I was speechless. There are many people in their twenties with fewer new experiences than those septuagenarians.” That’s why he’s convinced that it’s worth doing new things instead of thinking about age. This claim was confirmed by scientists from Duke University, who did research on people relocating to the US. Regardless of their age, when they immigrated, their ‘memory peak’ shifted to include the eventful period that took place after arriving in the new country.

Internal chronometers?

“When I wake at night, I’m tempted to look at the clock, but I already know what time it is. It’s the same time it always is when I wake at this hour: 4am, or 4.10am … Even without looking I could deduce the time, from the ping of the bedroom radiator gathering steam in winter, or the infrequency of the cars passing by on the street outside,” writes Alan Burdick in his book Why Time Flies. William James, who struggled with insomnia, also found it fascinating. “All my life I have been struck by the accuracy with which I will wake at the same exact minute night after night and morning after morning, if only the habit fortuitously begins,” he wrote. Burdick describes an experiment carried out by psychologist Edwin G. Boring and his wife Lucy in 1917. The couple would wake people up at certain intervals and ask them the time. The respondents estimated the time quite accurately (with a 50-minute margin). Did they use some internal body clocks? No. These people deduced the time by analysing various signals coming to their brains from inside and outside of their bodies. A stale taste in the mouth, moonlight outside the window, traffic sounds coming from the streets, roosters crowing – all of these things indicated the time of night.

“We have no internal body clock that could tell us it’s precisely 12.15pm. The fact that we wake up at 7am every day is only a matter of habit. We learn it just like we learn the concept of time. When we’re young, we live in the constant state of present time,” says Albiński. As children, we’re unable to distinguish between ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’, not to mention estimating the amount of waiting required when our parents promise to take us for ice cream in just 15 minutes. The latest research, using such technology as magnetic resonance imaging, shows that our sense of time is partially controlled by our basal ganglia, prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. Marc Wittmann asked his respondents to estimate the length of various periods (lasting up to 18 seconds). He noticed that the brains of the people who gave better estimates had shown higher activity in the insular cortex – the part of the brain responsible for integrating signals from the whole body.

This does not mean there are no biological clocks at work in human bodies. Psychologist and chronobiologist Michael Breus explains this in his book The Power of When. “In the morning, sunlight comes into your eyeballs, travels along the optic nerve, and activates the SCN to begin each day’s circadian (Latin for ‘around a day’) rhythm. The SCN is the master clock that controls dozens of other clocks throughout your body. Over the course of the day, your core temperature, blood pressure, cognition, hormonal flow, alertness, energy, digestion, hunger, metabolism, creativity, sociability, and athleticism, and your ability to heal, memorize, and sleep, among many other functions, fluctuate according to and are governed by the commands of your inner clocks.”

But those internal clocks are not synchronized with the time measured by physical clocks, and they can be severely affected by a lack of light. “A great way to illustrate this phenomenon is through an experiment carried out by the French speleologist Michel Siffre, who spent two months in a mountain cave in the Alps in the early 1960s. Siffre had no clocks available and he didn’t see daylight, so he couldn’t tell the days apart from nights,” says Albiński. Although Siffre’s biological cycle remained stable (lasting 24.5 hours), he believed that time was passing differently. When he left the cave in mid-September, he was convinced that it was the 20th of August!

A lack of light is not the only disruption to our biological clocks. The invention of light bulbs has affected our circadian rhythm forever. “The invention of precise means of measuring time contributed to the development of the industrial era more than the steam engine did. It enabled precise working hours to be established in factories, but also squeezed us into a pattern of constant rush and time control,” says Albiński.

Who has time?

This pattern does not function everywhere in the world, as Ryszard Kapuściński shows in The Shadow of the Sun, where he brilliantly observes a scene on a bus station in Accra.

“We climb into the bus and sit down. At this point there is a risk of culture clash… It will undoubtedly occur if the passenger is a foreigner who doesn’t know Africa. Someone like that will start looking around, squirming, inquiring, ‘When will the bus leave?’”

“‘What do you mean, when?’ the astonished driver will reply. ‘It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up’. The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time. In the European worldview, time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics… The European feels himself to be time’s slave, dependent on it, subject to it. To exist and function, he must observe its ironclad, inviolate laws, its inflexible principles and rules. He must heed deadlines, dates, days, and hours… Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm.”

Time materializes as a result of our actions, and disappears when we abandon them. “Despite globalization, differences in perceptions of time are still noticeable. If we attend a lecture at a university in Brazil, it shouldn’t surprise us if it doesn’t start on time. The lecture will begin when all students and the lecturer are there,” says Albiński.

Different perceptions of time were brilliantly illustrated by the research conducted by Robert Levine, who is a professor of social psychology at California State University. The author of A Geography of Time analysed the perception of time and pace of living in 31 countries. His team measured the average speed of people walking an 18-metre distance on their city pavement, the time needed to buy a stamp in a post office, and checked whether public clocks were showing the exact time. It’s not hard to guess that eight out of nine countries with the fastest speed of life were located in Western Europe (the only exception being Japan, placed fourth on the list). The last eight positions were occupied by countries from Africa, the Middle East and South America, with the bottom three locations occupied by Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico. Poland turned out to be slower than France, but faster than the US.

Levine discovered that perception of time affects many other social phenomena. For example, people living in slower cities were more inclined to help strangers. Another study by Levine suggested that cities with a faster pace of living have more smokers, and that their inhabitants suffer from cardiac arrests more often. “Research also shows that our approach to time can be changed – for example, by moving to a city where people don’t rush so much,” says Albiński. Time really can change its pace then. The next time my children ask when Christmas will finally come, I should probably say: mañana.

You’re only as old as you feel

The experience of time is a very individual thing, and our perceived age can differ significantly from our biological age. Yannick Stephan from the Université de Montpellier analysed data from 17,000 middle-aged and elderly people. He found that most of them felt on average eight years younger than the age shown on their birth certificate. This is good for our health, too! It lowers the risk of dementia and depression. There could be many factors contributing to these benefits: when we feel younger, we’re more keen to exercise or travel. Feeling older has its own consequences: it increases the probability of early death by 25%.

The studies of Brian Nosek and Nicole Lindner from the University of Virginia show that we start feeling younger than our actual age after we turn 25. Before reaching that age, we feel older than we really are. At the age of 30, the difference already starts to show: 70% of 30-year-olds claim they feel younger than their biological reality.


Translated by Aga Zano

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Agnieszka Fiedorowicz

is a popular science journalist. She has worked for the largest Polish popular science monthly “Focus”, as well as several other Polish magazines, including “Elle”, “Harper’s Bazaar”, “Coaching” and “National Geographic”. She is vice editor-in-chief of the magazine “Po prostu zyj” [Just Live!] (http://stomalife.pl/index.php/magazyn-po-prostu-zyj/), published by the Polish Foundation of People with Ostomy, Stoma Life. She won Amnesty International Polska’s “Pen of Hope” (2010) award, and has been nominated three times for the Polish Grand Press Prize (category: social and scientific journalism). She is married, with two kids, Marta and Marcin, and one German Shepherd, Dzikus.