Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

Einstein

Remember those sheer endless seeming math or English lessons? This virtually limitless treasure of free days lying ahead of us at the beginning of summer holidays which, looking back seemed much too short? When watching children dividing the waiting time until a special event into “only x more sleeps”, while for adults the time until the same event slips like sand through their fingers – do we ever wonder why time perception can be so much different?

The physicist and Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein summarized his observation of time perception in his “alternative” theory of relativity, but he neither could give us a satisfactory explanation.

The Internal Clock

One thing is certain: We don’t have a sensory organ which is responsible for time measurement. Nevertheless, many of our perceptions and the reactions to them are strongly dependent on us estimating time correctly. How could we dare to cross a street without being able to anticipate, if we will make it before the next car arrives? How could we plan any activities without knowing at least roughly how long they will take? Although researching for years, scientists still don’t agree on how exactly we perceive time periods. Some assume that our perception of time periods results from an assigned clockwork-like neuronal mechanism; others hypothesize that time periods are coded in easily accessible form as a specific and ubiquitous feature of neuronal activity. In one thing they agree though: time perception requires attention to a certain degree. This could explain why some activities seem to us particularly long, others exceptionally short.

Factors Influencing Time Perception

Time perception is a cognitive process. Our brains have to allocate attention to it, even if we aren’t aware of it. Time perception therefore is dependent on how much attention can be assigned to it and on how much additional information has to be processed simultaneously. The more other information processing procedures are performed, the less attention is available for time perception, so that we finally estimate time incorrectly. If we are busy with things we are much interested in, our brains can only process few time units, and we underestimate time intervals. The time flies.

Additionally, time perception is – as well as all other cognitive processes – influenced by our emotions: by our arousal and the fact, if we feel good or bad at present. In low arousal, positive emotions will cause an overestimation of time periods, while negative emotions will make us feel like time is flying. If we are highly aroused however, positive emotions will effect in an underestimation of time periods. Hence, we possess two different “time systems”, of which one is responsible for situations of low arousal, the other becomes relevant in situations of high arousal. This is explained by the fact, that for our ancestors already time perception in situations with low arousal and negative emotions loomed large. In such incidents they had to decide, whether to fight or flight. A differential processing of time units hence was vital.

Making Time Fly

Even if we don’t yet exactly know how our brain measures time, we normally have a very good instinct for what to do to have a good time. If our professional life is full of never ending meetings and long-winded reports, we should at least plan activities for our leisure time which we will enjoy, which will fascinate and inspire us.

This only has one drawback: Time will go by in a flash.

References:

Angrilli, A., Cherubini, P., Pavese, A., & Manfredini, S. (1997). The influence of affective factors on time perception. Perception & psychophysics, 59(6), 972-982.

Ivry, R. B., & Schlerf, J. E. (2008). Dedicated and intrinsic models of time perception. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(7), 273-280.

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