The Perception of Time

The experience of time appears relative -- from the standpoint of human perception.

The experience of time can be defined as a mental sequence of moment-to-moment reflections; the recollection of time can be defined as a remembrance of that sequence. These measurements of time (prospective and retrospective) are not identical.

The speed of time, as measured in the flow of events, can be experienced as being either whirlwind or languid, depending on one’s psychological interpretation. Similarly, the estimation of time elapsed, after a sequence of events has occurred, can be experienced as either recent, or long ago, according to human perception.

Various studies have claimed that children experience time’s passage more slowly than adults. The research suggests that much greater mental stimulation occurs in children’s brains, as compared to their older counterparts. The intense assimilation and learning of new data in childhood incorporates a denser palette of experience, and makes time seem longer in duration.

Another possible reason for the difference in time perception between adults and children may be found in the “proportionality” argument, which states that a particular chunk of time in a child’s life occupies a greater percentage of the whole, when compared to the same chunk of time in an adult’s life. This argument appears to be a version of the Delboeuf Illusion, except that it pertains to time, not to optical effects.

Regardless of age, the estimation of time in “fun” situations appears to be faster than normal. (“Time flies when you’re having fun.”) How is this paradox explained? Perhaps “fun” situations do not stimulate the same degree of critical learning found in children. Perhaps another reason is emotional: You do not want the time to end.

The accepted explanation, according to James M. Broadway, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Brittiney Sandoval, is that “Engaging in a novel exploit makes time appear to pass more quickly in the moment. But if we remember that activity later on, it will seem to have lasted longer than more mundane experiences.”

Perhaps a similar explanation can be applied to boredom, if presented in converse form: If engaging in a dull exploit makes time appear to pass more slowly, then perhaps it will be remembered later as seeming shorter in duration. Boredom is triggered by the absence of novel stimulation. Unlike a state of dreamless sleep, which appears to pass in an instant, boredom seems to impede our mental passage of time. Perhaps a dull period of boredom should be spent in a light snooze -- or, better yet, in learning something new.

As mentioned earlier, the experience of time and the recollection of time do not appear to be the same. In older adults, as the experience of time accelerates, the expression “It seems like only yesterday” assumes new significance.

In other words, as the flight of time increases, the speed of elapsed time between past events also increases. The result: It might seem like an event has occurred a shorter time ago. The segments of time that exist from sequence to sequence, in time’s passage through life, might reflect a person’s overall perception of time.

Time appears to be malleable. Einstein established his intuitions about time in a mathematical treatise known as Relativity. The human mind is not a physical cosmos in which time and space can be warped, as was demonstrated in Einstein’s equations. But our perceptions of time can, in fact, undergo various distortions and often get entangled in hidden surprises.

Perhaps, for the oldest and wisest amongst us, our perceptions of time can be used for our practical advantage. The time-dilation effect in older adults might be manipulated; it might even be forestalled. One is never too old to manage the flow of time in a more productive fashion. The key to stretching our yesterdays, or widening our tomorrows, may be in seeking out the bold, the unpredictable, the stimulating, and the new.

Written by John DiPrete

Originally published in Psych Central.

The author has contributed to Psych Central, MacWorld, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Medical Hypotheses, Speculations in Science and Technology, among other outlets.

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