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Thursday 13 August 2020

The speed of time

This time will pass. Or so they say. We believe we’re travelling forward, how do we really know? If time changed direction, could we even tell? In days, and weeks, and months like these, time seems to stand still.

...Why is that?

Sometimes, time seems to stand still. Unsplash (CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay)

There are lots of theories for why time seems to move at different speeds. Some of them are related to age. Afterall, didn’t time always move much, much more slowly when you were a child? The proportional theory suggests that our perception of time is linked to the constant that is our time alive: “the apparent length of an interval at a given epoch of a man's life is proportional to the total length of the life itself. A child of 10 feels a year as 1/10 of his whole life — a man of 50 as 1/50”, whilst the biological theory proposes that time is linked to our metabolism, which gradually slows down as we age. Or perhaps our heartbeat. Or breathing. Or body temperature. Experiments (some of which are ethically dubious!) seem to back it up; for example, a fever can make you experience time as longer... or is that just because being ill sucks?

One thing that always seems to affect our perception of time, however, is the number of changes we’re detecting in the world around us. An exciting activity goes by in a flash, whilst if you’re stuck in doors for months on end staring at the same walls, well, it’s slower, right? We also do a thing called telescoping; this is when we think past events are closer than they actually are. You’ve heard it said about children all the time: “they grow so fast” – even though they extend by about one metre over eighteen years.
Telescope via Wikipedia Commons.

The suggestion of perceptual theory is that information load determines our sense of time: the more information there is, the slower time goes. So when you’re a child and everything is new, the world is bigger and longer. Then, when you’re an adult, you’re seeing fewer “new” things; these need less focus and less mental processing, so they occupy less mental space, and time whizzes by. This may be linked to the neural clock: he flow and volume of incoming information and how we process it.

So what happens when we’re bored? When we have nothing to mentally occupy us, we focus on the tiny details of the world around us, noticing things we never normally notice. We can actively slow down our perception by stopping to appreciate things, such as a beautiful painting, or a glorious sunset.

Humans are wired to avoid boredom. We hate it. Hate it. In fact, experiments have shown that we’re do almost anything to avoid it, including stimulating ourselves with pain. This may, in fact, be linked to our need for mental stimulation and social interaction.

Experts tell us that we actually have more time than we think we do: we live in a busy world dominated by the perception of a time deficit – and in fact this perception is not in line with reality! The advice then is to slow down once in a while, and embrace the silence and the stillness to recalibrate ourselves.

I mean, it’s about time.

Experts tell us that we actually have more time
than we think we do. Public Domain via Alexas_Fotos (Pixabay)

To read more about time, check out our article on the topic.

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