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Perceptions of Time

We look at time in two different ways.

On writing on the perception of time

Time Warped is a book about the subjective perception of time; I’m not talking about the physics of time here but about how we feel time passing and why it is that not all minutes feel the same as others.  So if you've got 20 minutes, say, to grab a sandwich or lunch with a friend, you've just started talking and sat down and that 20 minutes will seem like it’s gone just like that.  If you've got 20 minutes and you're waiting on a train platform and it says the train is going to to be one minute, and then it says one minute, and then it says one minute and suddenly it says it’s another 18 minutes, that will feel like a very long time, it’s the same amount of time but it will feel much much longer, so it will feel very different.  What I’ve looked at is why are there certain situations where time speeds up and other situations where time slows down and what can we do about that, is it possible to change our perception of time by knowing more about how it works psychologically and how it works neuro-scientifically.

There’s lots of things you can do; people will often say to me how can they slow time down, that time goes too fast and they want it to go more slowly but in fact, when you look at the research on all the different times where time goes slowly, they’re not usually good times, they are times when people are feeling rejected, people are feeling depressed, people are feeling lonely, or people are feeling bored, those are all the times when time feels as if it’s going really slowly.  In fact, if time seems to feel like it’s going a bit too fast for you and its always nearly Christmas and nearly summer and, oh, here we are it’s Christmas again, that’s actually a sign you've got loads of interesting things on and it’s probably a good thing rather than a bad thing.  

And we look at time in two different ways, we look at it prospectively: how fast is this going right now, am I bored, am I interested, how fast is this going, and then we look back at it retrospectively: how fast did that feel like it was, and usually those things match up and sometimes they won’t, so if you go away for a weekend on holiday, then if you go to a new place and it’s a good holiday and you're doing loads of new things, the day seems to go really fast, it’s really fun but it goes far too fast and it’s time to come back quite soon.  But then when you're back, you suddenly feel like you've been away for ages and you think, actually, that feels longer than a week or longer than a weekend, how weird, it feels as if I’ve been away for ages.  That’s this thing again of looking at time in two ways, and one of the ways that we measure for ourselves how much time has passed is by how many new memories we made.  If you go on holiday you do lots of new things so you make lots of new memories and when you look back you think that was a long time.

So if you've got a busy life where time seems to be going too fast, you have lots of different memories to look back on and, looking back, your life will seem longer.

On reaction times

Depending on people’s jobs, they do get very good at assessing certain durations of time, so lots of therapists and clinical psychologists I know will say even though some of their clients are more interesting than others, some are a little bit duller, they can always guess when the 50 minutes is up and they almost don’t need to look at their watches they get so used to 50 minutes.  Doing lots of radio, I get very used to a minute or 30 seconds, I can judge both of those very well because Im required to do that all the time.  Elite sportspeople or musicians…they've done research on musicians showing that they can distinguish between smaller millisecond timings than the rest of us can because they’ve trained themselves to do it, so training does change people’s perception of time a bit.

On how the brain becomes more accustomed to certain durations of time

What probably happens is that the various different parts of the brain…and there seem to be these four parts of the brain implicated in measuring time, people have tried to find a clock in the brain and there is no single clock that can measure a millisecond and three seconds and 20 minutes and four hours, there just isn’t, and there’s no one place where if someone has a brain injury then they lose all perception of time, but they can lose the ability to work at different durations, in particular, so one area might interrupt their assessment of two seconds, say, their estimation of that.  So people can get better at different ones as well and there’s some really interesting research which shows that children with Tourette’s syndrome who have uncontrollable tics, particularly the children that get good at controlling those tics, they're using the prefrontal cortex right at the front of the forehead to do that and they actually become better at estimating a few seconds than children who don't have those tics, because that part of their brain has been so used and so practiced, so toned up, that they can then assess how much time is passing better than other children.

On ‘losing time’

Sometimes people will have these dissociative states where time seems to be missing, sometimes that will come back again later, that memory of that, but sometimes that won’t.  Nobody knows exactly why they happen and nobody knows exactly how that seems to fit in with time perception, but there’s also that sensation you get where you've lost several hours because of a time zone change and people will say they've lost a day.  There was a guy in the 1960s, a French potholer who was determined to spend two months underground in an ice cave, and he founded the whole field of chronobiology as a result, but he spent two months down there and he didn't take a watch, he didn't know what day it was or anything and when his friends came to get him he actually had another 25 days to go and even though he hated it down there and became really depressed and miserable down there, he felt he’d been cheated out of the 25 days because he was never going to have those 25 days back again.  So the way we label our days and our hours does seem to have more of an impact on us than we might expect, we really like knowing what those times are and you're still going live for the same length of time, whatever time you call it, but we really like knowing when it is.