- As you age, time feels like it moves faster because your hypothalamus deteriorates
- Most Americans have at least seven clocks within close reach at any given time
- If a sound & image occur less than 100 milliseconds apart, your brain synchs them
- Your cerebellum governs your brain's major timekeeper, your circadian clock
What if we told you that your perception of time was all in your mind?
If you ever watch sports documentaries on television, you’re undoubtedly familiar with those climactic game-winning plays, in which a wide receiver gracefully glides downfield as a gently-spiraling football descends and lands in his hands, or a basketball player rises gradually over an opponent and launches a jump shot that floats in a majestic arc and rustles the net as the clock expires. Editors slow down the footage, in order to simulate the way that athletes experience those moments. As tennis great John McEnroe explained in a 2006 article: "Things slow down, the ball seems a lot bigger and you feel like you have more time.
"Everything computes—you have options, but you always take the right one.”
But as it turns out, just as the slow-motion video is an editing trick, time dilation—the slowed-down perception of time that McEnroe and other athletes describe—is a trick, too, but one played upon humans by their own brains. In 2012, University College London neuroscientist Nobuhiro Hagura and
colleagues conducted an experiment, in which they had volunteers react to flashing and flickering discs on a screen. Some were asked to reach out and tap the screen, while others were asked to react verbally. The researchers found that subjects who used their arms felt that they had more time to react to the stimuli, compared to those who didn’t move their limbs.
The explanation: When preparing the body to perform a movement, the brain kicks into high performance mode, processing more visual information than it does when the body is at rest, and creating a more vivid mental picture. “That makes time be perceived as longer and slower,” Hakura told BBC News. The same effect has been demonstrated from sheer physical motion. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, found that subjects who fell from a high place into a net perceived the fall as lasting 36 percent longer than the falls they watched.
That's just one of the tricks that our brains use to bend and alter time, as if reality was filled with those melted clock faces in a Salvador Dali painting. Sometimes, our brains play time tricks on us in order to help us perform difficult athletic feats, or to enable us to slam on the brake and swerve the steering wheel in time to avoid a pedestrian who’s wandered into the crosswalk. At other moments, when we're deprived of stimulation, time miraculously seems to have speeded up.
"As humans, we have this sense that time flows forward and we're just along for the ride—that we're essentially passive observers,” explains Caltech neuroscientist Chess Stetson. “But the truth is far more bizarre. To make a coherent story of your experiences, your brain can actually warp and shift time, giving you a false impression of the speed and order of events and the world around you."
For decades, neuroscientists believed that the brain followed time in a regular fashion, as if it had an internal clock that was set by neural impulses, the way that a crystal of quartz vibrating inside a watch makes the seconds tick away precisely. But that “pacemaker-accumulator” model recently has been given way to a “striatal beat frequency” model, which holds that the brain actually has a vast number of smaller, separate timers that are coordinated by the striatum. That complexity gives the brain the ability to alter our perceptions of time.
Once again, this all goes back to the reality that our senses take in a vast amount of information from our environment, so much that if our brains had to process and make sense of it all, we'd be pretty much paralyzed by information overload. So to get around that problem, our brains tend to be selective. They tend to pick out something that's unusual, and devote more processing resources to it—which makes it seem as if we're looking at it for a longer time than everything else
we see. Neuroscientists call this the oddball effect.
Neuroscientist Eagleman has demonstrated the oddball effect by showing a series of pictures to experimental subjects—many identical pictures of a shoe, and then an image of an alarm clock. Though all of the pictures appeared on the screen for the exact same amount of time, subjects on average perceive that the clock appeared for 13 percent longer than the shoes. Eagleman wondered if images that aroused a more intense reaction from viewers might alter the perception of time even more, so he inserted pictures of guns and tarantulas. Instead, though, he found no difference between those pictures and the alarm clock. As it turns out, the brain tends to spend more resources on the contrasting image or object to which it should pay attention.
According to Eagleman, both the oddball effect specifically and the brain's distortion of time in general are produced by a
capability of the brain called repetition suppression. That is, our neurons will become less responsive to a stimulus after repeated exposure to it. In experiments, brain scans of subjects who see a series of faces show more activity when they see a new face that they haven't seen before.
While the brain's tendency to filter things out in this fashion might seem like a limitation, in fact, the brain sometimes
edits time so that things make more sense to us. Light travels more quickly than sound waves through air, for example, but our brains edit so that things that happen closely together—the sight of a car door slamming and the sound it makes—seem to happen at the exact same moment. Experiments show that we don't notice the lag, until it takes more than 100 milliseconds.
There are other odd aspects to our variable perception of time. For example, time seems to speed up as we get older. Additionally, certain medical conditions seem to affect time perception. Children with Tourette's syndromeare actually better at estimating intervals just over one second than are other children. And young people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) seem to experience time more slowly than those who have normal attention abilities.
It's unclear why this occurs, though it may have something to
do with brain chemistry. A study performed on rodents, published in the early 2000s, showed that drugs that affect levels of a brain chemical called dopamine, such as methamphetamine and haloperidol, affect time perception as well.
- Golf ball
- Tennis ball
- 1Golf ball
- 2Tennis ball
- Sled dog
- 1Sled dog
- Cruise ship
- Private jet
- Bullet train
- Speed boat
- 1Private jet
- 2Speed boat
- 3Bullet train
- 4Cruise ship
|Fastest Ball||Slowest Creature||Quickest Travel|
So you want to alter your perception of time?
As we learn in this episode, our brains continually play tricks with time, slowing or speeding up our perception of its passage, in order to help us perform physical feats, deal with danger, or cope with tedium. Usually, these time-altering processes kick in, without our even realizing they are at work.
But what if you wanted to deliberately alter your perception of time? Here are some tricks that might work.
1. Draw the shades, and avoid watching the clock. By depriving yourself of stimulation and time-keeping devices, you actually can make time seem to go more slowly than it actually is passing. In 1962, French caver Michel Siffre lived for a while inside a cave, where he was without natural light, didn’t have a clock hanging on the wall, and was deprived of much of the sensory input that we’re usually bombarded with in ordinary life. Siffre found that before long, his time
perception was altered, so that it actually passed much more rapidly than he realized. He tried to measure out two minutes by counting off seconds in his mind; but when he checked his watch, he discovered that five minutes actually had passed. And after emerging from the cave, he estimated that his stay had lasted 34 days. But when he checked the calendar, he discovered that he had been underground for 59 days, an under-estimation error of about 70 percent.
2. Listen to your favorite music. When you’re listening to music that you like, it'll seem as if time is passing more rapidly than it actually is. Back in the 1990s, University of Cincinnati marketing researcher James J. Kellaris, who is also a musician, performed an experiment to see how certain types of music affect listeners' perception of time intervals. He found that contrary to the old saw that time flies when you're having fun, when subjects listened to enjoyable instrumental music in a major key, they overestimated the
amount of time that they'd been listening by an average of 38 percent. (That was a significant difference, even though research subjects generally overestimate time passage by about 26 percent, according to studies). Subjects who listened to unpleasant atonal noise, in contrast, perceived time as passing more quickly than the people who were enjoying what they were hearing.
3. Heat yourself up or cool down. Decades worth of studies have shown that your body temperature influences how you perceive time. If you increase your temperature, you’ll perceive that time is passing more rapidly than it actually is, while if you cool yourself down, time will seem to pass more slowly than the clock actually shows. Researchers have theorized that this is because a higher body temperature increases arousal—that is, the condition of reacting more to sensory stimulation. That, in turn, would provide the brain with more information, possibly causing it to slow do down time perception in order to process it.
4. Go to a hypnotist. When you’re in a hypnotic state, time seems to pass more slowly than how it it’s actually ticks away. A 1979 study showed that hypnotized subjects underestimated the time that they’d been in that state by about 41 percent, compared to their underestimation of time by 14 percent when they weren't hypnotized.