A second can feel like forever. Sometimes, an hour can feel like a minute.
Time flies when you’re having fun. It slows down when you’re bored and restless. Sometimes you’re racing against time. Our relationship with the clock is complicated and rather tenuous. The clock ticks at the right time, but it’s our internal clock that rushes through time or suddenly slows down. Why so?
In the past century, scientists have been trying to understand and explore the way people feel as minutes and hours pass. “The emotions we experience as people are closely connected to both our perception and experience of time. Time impacts our emotional experiences both in the short term,” explains Lauren Smith, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist at Sage Clinics. "It also impacts the long term memories and personal development."
Referring to the phrase ‘time flies when you are having fun’, “It relates to a phenomenon known as ‘time compression’, the idea that when we are engaged in something fun and enjoyable, time seems to pass quickly,” she explains. “The opposite of this is ‘time dilation’, where when we experience emotions such as boredom, stress, or anxiety, and we can feel like it is moving very slowly,” she says.
The emotions we experience as people are closely connected to both our perception and experience of time. Time impacts our emotional experiences both in the short term. It also impacts the long term memories and personal development...
When we are motivated and “in the zone”, time flies by fast. It narrows our memory and attention processes, eliminating thoughts and feelings that are not related.
The ‘dopamine’ clock
Time isn’t just one entity to the brain. Different regions of the brain rely on numerous neural mechanisms to track the passage of time. In this regard, decades of research cite the role of dopamine or the ‘happiness hormone’ in speeding up time, according to American researcher Joe Paton, who published his findings in the journal, Science.
According to Paton, the release of dopamine, a key chemical in the brain, speeds up our perception of time. This controls how we view time. When we’re having fun, the cells are far more active. They release dopamine and your brain judges that less time has passed than actually has. When you're listless and feeling dull, these cells don't release as much dopamine, and time seems to slow down.
The brain’s clock
However, there’s a lot more detailed research on the brain’s subjective clock.
American psychologist Warren Meck, in 1984, had devised a model of how the brain tracks time. He discovered that the representation of time was generated by the oscillatory activity of cells in the upper cortex. The frequency of these cells' activity is detected by cells in the dorsal striatum at the base of the forebrain.
His model separated explicit timing and implicit timing.
Implicit and explicit timing, and the brain’s clock
Implicit timing implies the amount of time separating one from an impending event that is expected to occur in the near future. For instance: Can I just get some lunch before a meeting?
Explicit timing is used in estimating the duration of an event.
Jennifer Coull, a senior research fellow at the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, at Provence University in Marseille, France, conducted research on implicit and explicit timing in 2020. She told the British news site, The Guardian, that the studies of explicit timing prove that two cortical structures, the supplementary motor area, which co-ordinates complex movements, and the right prefrontal cortex, are constantly activated. The cerebellum also plays a key role in motor tasks requiring perception of implicit timing.
The other parts of the brain that may be involved in implicit timing are the left parietal cortex, which manages intended movement, explained Coull. There is also the left premotor cortex, which plans and organises movement. Sometimes the right prefrontal cortex, which is involved in explicit timing estimates, is activated for implicit estimates. This occurs when an event does not occur as soon as expected, for example when a traffic light stays red for longer than expected. The brain’s ‘internal clock’ updates, once again anticipating the interval.
Coull asserted that the brain’s regions activities differ, depending on the context. The perception of time is also linked to memory and attention. Our memories also have a crucial role to play. When we're enjoying ourselves, our brain is usually not storing detailed memories, and so time passes quickly. However, when we’re bored, our brain tends to store more information, making us believe that the period lasted longer when we recall it later, she says.
The desserts versus flowers experiment
Neuroscientists have taken great pains with several experiments to try and understand how our emotions alter time. It’s not just that time flies when you’re having fun, it also depends on the kind of fun you’re having too.
People feel time has gone by quickly, when they are in a “flow state”. "This phenomenon is often referred to as the "flow state", coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi," explains Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director at LightHouse Arabia. "When we are in a state of flow, we are so absorbed in the task that we lose track of time. In contrast, when we are bored, our attention isn't occupied, making us more aware of the passage of time." Csíkszentmihályi's research has shown that in a flow state, one's attention is completely devoted to the task, resulting in a diminished awareness of self and time, she says.
When we are in a state of flow, we are so absorbed in the task that we lose track of time. In contrast, when we are bored, our attention isn't occupied, making us more aware of the passage of time. Research has shown that in a flow state, one's attention is completely devoted to the task, resulting in a diminished awareness of self and time
On the other hand, studies using neuroimaging have shown that when we are bored, there is increased activity in the default mode network of the brain, which is involved in mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts, making us more attuned to the passage of time.
These "aroused" states are high in motivation and arousal as American psychological scientists Philip Gable and Bryan Pool of the University of Alabama theorised in 2012. With the help of photos of desserts and flowers, they conducted a few experiments.
In one experiment, the participants were trained to tell the difference between pictures shown for a short (400 microseconds) or for a long (1600 microseconds) period of time. The “neutral” pictures included something positive but low in approach motivation like flowers. The photos that were “high in motivation” showed delicious desserts. The participants had to determine if each photo was displayed for a short or a long period of time.
Needless to say, the participants felt that the flowers were displayed to them for a longer amount of time than the desserts. The research also showed that the perceived amount of time for the delicious desserts was linked to how much time had passed since the participants last ate. If participants ate recently, it lowered their approach motivation for food, they judged the dessert pictures as having been displayed for a longer period of time than those who were hungrier.
In another experiment, the people said that time passed faster when they were shown dessert photos, as they wanted to eat them later. This proved what the scientists were trying to say: Our desire to approach something really does make time fly by quickly.
Another experiment showed that people’s perception of time did not reduce when they saw photos that evoked negative emotions. This made them more alert and attentive.
In order to test their hypothesis, the same group of scientists conducted a series of three experiments which they published in the August 2012 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
So, as the scientists conclude, "Although we tend to believe that time flies when we're having a good time, these studies indicate what it is about the enjoyable time that causes it to go by more quickly," Gable had written in his paper. "It seems to be the goal pursuit or achievement-directed action we're engaged in that matters. Just being content or satisfied may not make time fly, but being excited or actively pursuing a desired object can.” They also suggested that there might be a benefit to this phenomenon: If reaching a goal needs hard work across a period of time, it would be an advantage if that period seems brief.
When do we face time-blindness?
However, this ability to get so completely lost in the zone of doing something, or enjoying ourselves, could also be the result of time blindness. “Time blindness is not a clinical or medical diagnosis or a specific symptom of a particular condition,” explains Kirin Hilliar, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Heriot-Watt University Dubai.
“Rather, it refers to a general tendency to lose track of time or to plan your day effectively. We all experience moments of time blindness – indeed, research suggests that broadly, we all tend to underestimate how long it will take us to complete a task,” she says. However, when it becomes a chronic problem, it can negatively affect our productivity and time management.
Time blindness to a general tendency to lose track of time or to plan your day effectively. We all experience moments of time blindness – indeed, research suggests that broadly, we all tend to underestimate how long it will take us to complete a task
“One contributing factor to time blindness is how much we enjoy a particular task,” she adds. “When a task is fun, we find we can naturally focus our attention on what we’re doing. When a task is tedious or unsatisfying, we have to spend a lot more mental effort focusing our attention on that task, and not allowing ourselves to get distracted by the numerous other things that we would rather spend our time doing,” explains Hilliar. Either way, it can result in us not being able to manage our time properly.
To overcome time blindness, the following strategies can help, suggests Hilliar.
1. Set timers: If you are giving yourself an hour to do something, set a timer to help you keep track. Indeed, some people find regular ‘check-in’ timers, say, every 10 minutes, can help them re-focus their attention if they get distracted by other things.
2. Reduce notifications for other things: Turn off notifications for apps like social media and emails. These can draw your attention away from what you are trying to do. And that ‘I’ll just spend 5 minutes answering this one email’ can balloon into 2 hours.
3. Schedule the more rewarding activities to take place after more mundane but necessary tasks. This gives you something to look forward to and helps you stay motivated to get the more boring stuff out of the way as quickly as possible.