If you’re a parent, chances are you might recall a long road trip with your family when you’ve been on the road maybe all of ten minutes, and you hear that dreaded question from the back seat: “Are we there yet?” Time passes slowly for children, especially when they’re anticipating something (as in their vacation destination), or when they’re bored. So you suggest that your child read a book or watch a video. Or you play travel games with them. You know, to make the time go by faster.
We know these activities don’t really speed up time, which is constant. But they sure can change our perception of how much time has passed. And not just for children, but for adults as well.
German psychologist Marc Wittmann, from the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, has conducted studies about the perception of time. In some of his experiments, Dr. Wittmann found more accurate judgements of duration were made by those who had more activity in a part of the brain called the insular cortex. According to Dr. Wittmann, this area of the brain is responsible for integrating signals from all over the body, and enables us to “sense our self” as well as the passing of time.
Still, he says there is no real consensus as to how and where time is processed in the brain. In fact, when it comes to durations longer than five seconds, Dr. Wittmann’s experiments reveal our judgments are not that accurate.
It is interesting to note that in one of Wittmann’s experiments, people who were impulsive felt time move more slowly than those who were not impulsive. So while external factors play a huge role in how we perceive the passage of time, who we are also seems to have an effect.
When we’re feeling bored, we’re less distracted and are more sensitive to how we feel and to the passing of time. Conversely, time can indeed feel as if it’s flying when we are having fun, or deeply engaged in some activity. We are focusing intently on something and therefore paying less attention to the passing of time.
Joe Paton, a neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Foundation, a private biomedical research foundation in Portugal, has conducted experiments with rodents on the passage of time and found a multitude of timing mechanisms in the brain. One such mechanism involves the speed at which brain cells activate one another and form a network when you’re performing an activity. The faster those paths of neurons form, the faster we perceive time.
Another mechanism involves chemicals in the brain. Paton and his colleagues found that a set of neurons that releases the neurotransmitter dopamine (an important chemical involved in feeling rewarded) affects how the brain perceives time. When you’re having fun, these cells are more active, they release a lot of dopamine, and your brain judges that less time has passed than in reality. When you’re not having fun, these cells don’t release as much dopamine, and time seems to slow down.
A discussion of time would not be complete without acknowledging the fact that, as we age, time seems to go by faster. I can personally attest to this fact and have joined others who poignantly ask, “Where did the time go?”
Dr. David Eagleman, an adjunct professor of psychology and public mental health and population sciences at Stanford University, says when you look back in time, the perceived duration of an event involves the way the brain laid down the memory. The networks of neurons that code for a new memory are denser than they are for something that’s not novel, he said. When you look back, those denser networks make it seem as though that memory lasted longer.
For example, says Dr. Eagleman, if you were to recall a long flight, but you always take long flights, you might remember it going by more quickly than it seemed at the time because your brain didn’t lay down much memory.
Dr. Eagleman explains that time seems to speed up as we get older because when we are children, everything seems novel, so our brains lay down those dense networks to remember those events and experiences. As adults however, we’ve experienced more, so these events don’t prompt the creation of such memories.
We can now see how one year in a five-year-old’s life might seem longer than one year in an 80-year-old’s life. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why children only want time to go by faster, while many older people would do anything to slow it down.