The Psychological Importance of Temporal Perception
Time has been a great mystery for many philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, and other great thinkers. We often ask ourselves, “Where has the time gone?” As we watch our parents age and our younger relatives grow up, time can be both painful and redeeming. Time is a key component of our daily lives, a guiding force for our behavior.
Adults seem to obsess over time that has passed swiftly and recall the days of long summers as a child. There is an ever-present nostalgia for being young again — a period when time seemed to move slowly, languorously. Research suggests that older people underestimate how much time has passed because our dopaminergic levels decrease as we age. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that helps transmit signals between the nerve cells of the brain. This process leads us to perceive time as speeding up as we age.
However, there are several techniques we can use to slow down our perception of time — both practical and metaphysical — to “gain” more time. To be intentional about our perception of time requires learning to be childlike again, engaging in new activities, disconnecting from technology, paying attention to details, and meditating on mortality.
Learn to Be a Child Again
Our perception of time changes as we experience adventure and do new things to stimulate the mind. We can learn to be curious again about new ideas. With new experiences, the brain creates new neural pathways, adapts to new experiences and information, and creates new memories. This allows the brain to focus and record memories more clearly, making it feel as if time is moving more slowly.
Because children are constantly dedicating significant neural resources and brain power to building new mental models, in an attempt to understand how the world works, children are constantly engaged in the moment. However, as adults we experience similar stimuli daily as we engage in routines. In order to maximize our perception of time, we must learn to be children again; we must attempt to explore new things in this world. We must be eager for adventure, to see and feel all that there is to experience. If we are able to break out of routine and engage the world with a childlike sense of wonder, the reward is feeling as if we have lived longer lives.
Engage in New Activities
Imagine a magician hands you a deck of cards. You riffle through and confirm that each card is unique. Now with a tap of the wand, she transforms the deck so every card is the same. This popular illusion is exactly what happens when we cease to invite new experiences into our life. When our days become a carbon copy of one another, we lose the ability to differentiate between them. We look back over the months spent on the same commute, in the same office, and fighting the same problems, with a diminished ability to separate those days in our mind. Our perception of time feels rushed and condensed. Compare the blur of mechanized work-life to a vacation where every day is distinct and filled with new experiences. You remember exactly what happened, who you were with, and where you went. This is the power of new experiences in shaping our perception of time.
Dr. David Eagleman’s work examining how we perceive time was recently featured in an article in The New Yorker. According to Eagleman, the more vivid the details were in a memory, the longer that we perceive the moment to have lasted. Eagleman also said “childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.” Yet, by being more aware of our surroundings, making note of new experiences, we have the power to make it seem like our lives are longer, and we receive more of our scarcest resource: time.
Eagleman believes that even small changes can help us become more aware of what is happening around us; switching your watch to the opposite wrist or taking a different route to work can shake up your neural circuits — anything you can do to keep your brain from switching to auto-pilot.