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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 circuitsanything you can do to keep your brain from switching to auto-pilot. 

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Pay Attention

When we live through dramatic events, such as near death experiences, research shows that people report time passes in slow motion. The perception of time is connected to the engagement and attention we provide in the moment; the more attention we provide, the more information we process, and the more time we perceive. Our brain has to speed up its data processing to react.

When our bodies sense a serious threat, the amygdala directs our brain’s resources to focus on the current situation. This ability was evolutionarily advantageous as it enabled humans to make quick decisions necessary for survival. This neural clock in the human brain perceives time through processes related to memory and attention, unlike our commonly known perceptions of clocks (the man-made items). So, when encountering something new, try paying close attention to the details and engaging in the moment’s beauty. Reflect on the sun’s rays hitting the leaves in the early morning. Listen to the birds sing. Almost as if by magic, you may feel time slow down. 

Learn to Disconnect

Researchers have discovered that technological advances and modern lifestyle have impacted our experience of time. Increases in the pace of life have been linked to physical and mental health issues. Our interactions with technological devices and systems make it feel as if time flows quickly.

In one study, over 70% of participants reported a dependence on everyday technologies and a considerable amount of time spent on social networking sites. Eighty-three percent of participants using technology reported they felt time moved faster than when they were not using technology. Individuals who spent more time using technology overestimated the passing of time, while individuals who used less technology were more accurate at estimating time. When we are present to the current experience, we feel as if we “have more” time and as if time moves more slowly.

Meditate on Mortality

Most of us don’t spend much of our lives pondering the thought of death and how short life could be. By understanding and being aware of our mortality, we are able to intensify every experience that we have.

Author Flannery O’Conner was diagnosed with a fatal disease that kept her close to death for many years, and yet she was able to write over two dozen short stories and two novels while suffering from lupus. The closeness of death showed her what really mattered in her life and how to better appreciate every moment and relationship.

When we continuously find ourselves outside our comfort zone, our awareness of the vivid arises. We gain an enhanced sense of smell, feel stronger emotions, and experience desires to extend the moment. By “meditating on mortality,” we can intensify our life experiences and extend our perception of time. Meditating on mortality is not just a focus on death — it is accepting our nature and refocusing our energy to meet death on our own terms when it comes.

Reflection

Time is our scarcest resource and most of us feel that we do not have enough of it. Yet, how quickly we perceive time to pass is dependent upon our perceptions. In other words, how we live our lives determines whether or not we experience time passing slowly or quickly.

Although we often feel threatened by things that we have no control over, getting more control over our perceptions of time will make it feel that time is not an enemy. When we immerse ourselves in new ideas and experiences, these enhanced efforts to focus on the present can slow our perceptions of time and enable us to derive the most from our scarcest resource in life — time.

Practice slowing down and experiencing the moment at hand. Take a new route home. Turn a fresh, childlike eye on the beauty and wonder that surrounds you in every moment. And finally, embrace novelty and change for what they are — harbingers of a long life.

The Psychological Importance of Temporal Perception


David Kirichenko

APA Reference
Kirichenko, D. (2020). The Psychological Importance of Temporal Perception. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-psychological-importance-of-temporal-perception/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 Apr 2020 (Originally: 28 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 27 Apr 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.