We don’t always perceive time as it flows. In other words, there can be a discrepancy between psychological time and actual time shown by a clock. Primarily, our mental states influence or distort our perception of time.
Our minds have an amazing ability to keep track of time, despite the fact that we have no sensory organ specifically devoted to the measurement of time.
This has led many experts to believe that there must be some sort of internal clock in our brain that ticks continuously, just like any other man-made clock.
Our sense of time is malleable
You’d expect that our internal clock functions just as a normal, man-made clock but, interestingly, that’s not the case. The clock that you have in your living room measures absolute time. It doesn’t care how you’re feeling or what life situations you’re going through.
But our internal clock works slightly differently. It appears to speed up or slow down depending on our life experiences. Emotions are the strongest influencers of our sense of time.
Take joy for example. It’s a common and universal experience that time seems to fly when we’re having a good time. But why does this happen?
To understand this phenomenon consider how you perceive time when you’re feeling sad, depressed, or bored. Without an iota of doubt, time seems to move slowly in such situations. You wait in agony for these long and hard times to end.
The thing is, when you’re sad or bored you’re much more aware of the passage of time. On the contrary, time seems to fly when you’re joyful because your awareness of the passage of time is significantly reduced.
Boring lectures and psychological time
To give you an example, say it’s Monday morning and you’ve got a really, really boring lecture to attend in college. You consider bunking classes and watching a football game instead.
You know from experience that if you attend the classes you’ll be bored to death and time will move like a snail but if you watch a football game time will fly and you’ll have a good time.
Let’s consider the first scenario in which you decide, against your will, to attend the classes. You’re not paying any attention to what the lecturer is babbling and time seems to drag along. Your awareness is not engaged with the lecture because your mind sees it as boring and useless.
Your mind is simply not allowing you to process the lecture because it’s such a waste of mental resources. At times, your mind totally shuts you off by making you fall asleep. You desperately try to stay awake lest you piss off the lecturer.
If your awareness isn’t focused on the lecture than what is it focused on?
The passage of time.
You’re now painfully aware of the passage of time. It seems to move so slowly as if deliberately slowing down to make you pay for the sins you did not know you’d committed.
Say the lecture starts at 10:00 am and is over at 12:00 pm. You first check the time at 10:20 when the first wave of boredom hits you. Then you check it again at 10:30 and 10:50. Then again at 11:15, 11:30, 11:40, 11:45, 11:50 and 11:55.
Against all rationality, you wonder why the lecture’s taking so long. You forget that the time moves at a constant rate. The lecture is taking so long only because your sense of time is influenced by boredom. You check your watch again and again and it seems like time is moving slowly and not as fast as it is ‘supposed’ to move.
Let’s consider the other scenario now- where you decide to attend a football game instead.
Say the game too starts at 10:00 am and is over at 12:00 pm. At 9:55 you check your watch and eagerly wait for the game to start. When it does, you fully immerse yourself in the game you love so much. You don’t check your watch until after the game is over. You lose track of time, both literally and metaphorically.
When the game’s over and you board a subway to head back home, you check your watch and it says 12:05 pm. Last you checked it was 9:55 am. “Boy, time really flies when you’re having fun!” you exclaim.
Our mind compares new information with previous related information. Although, to you, it seemed like time took a giant, quick leap from 9:55 am to 12:05 pm, it didn’t. But because your awareness was directed away from the passage of time (you didn’t frequently check the time during the game), time seemed to fly.
This is precisely why pleasant music is played at waiting places like airports, train stations, and office receptions. It distracts your awareness away from the passage of time so that waiting for long periods of time becomes easier. Also, they may put up a large TV screen or give you magazines to read to achieve the same end.
Fear and psychological time
Fear is a powerful emotion and it strongly influences our sense of time but for reasons different than those discussed so far. Studies have shown that time seems to slow down when a person skydives, bungee jumps, or unexpectedly senses the presence of a potential predator or mate.
Hence the expression, “Time stood still”. This expression is never used in the context of sadness or boredom. Time seems to stand still in the context of fearful or anxious situations because these situations often play an important role in our survival and reproductive success.
The standing still of time enables us to perceive the situation more sharply and accurately so that we can make the right decision (usually fight or flight) that can have a huge impact on our survival. It slows things down for our perception so that we’re given ample time to make the most critical decisions of our lives.
This is why fear is often called a ‘heightened sense of awareness’ and the most critical scenes in movies and TV shows sometimes shown in slow motion to mimic our real-life perceptions of such situations.
Why days seem to pass by quickly as we age
When we were children, a year seemed so long. Today weeks, months and years slip through our hands like grains of sand. Why does this happen?
Interestingly, there’s a mathematical explanation for this. When you were 11, a day was approximately 1/4000 of your life. At the age of 55, a day is approximately 1/20,000 of your life. As 1/4000 is a bigger number than 1/20,000 so the time elapsed in the former case is perceived to be larger.
If you hate math don’t worry there’s a better explanation:
When we were children, everything was new and fresh. We were continually forming new neural connections, learning how to live and adapt to the world. But as we grew older, more and more things began to become a part of our routine.
Say during childhood you experience events A, B, C and D and in adulthood you experience events A, B, C, D and E. Since your brain already has formed and mapped out connections about A, B, C and D, these events become more or less invisible to you. Only event E stimulates your brain to form new connections and you feel you’ve really spent time doing something.
So, the more you break out of routine the less quickly the days will seem to pass by. This is why it is said that people who keep learning stay forever young, of course not in a physical sense but definitely in the mental sense.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve written 280+ articles and published one book about human behavior on this blog that has garnered over 3 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur.