Time Perception

By Yeonwoo Lee (’21)

gray double bell clock
Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels.com

Catching flies are no easy task. Have you ever wondered why it is almost impossible to catch a fly on the loose? It’s not that humans are slow. It is that we are slow to them. According to the BBC, for every one second we move, the fly sees us move for seven seconds. This phenomenon is due to the concept of time perception. Time perception is the individual subjective feeling of a passage of time. Today, you’ll learn about how time perception is different between different species, how internal clocks change as humans get older, and finally, how humans can try to extend our time perception.

Like the fly, there are many other animals whose internal clocks run at a faster or slower time. In a study reported by the journal Animal Behavior, the internal clocks of species is dependent on how fast a species’ nervous system processes sensory information. According to the Scientific American, for humans, if a light flickers fast enough, we see it as solid light. But for certain species, their nervous systems process sensory information much faster, so they can see the lights flash. This causes things to move in slow motion as everything is slowed down. Let’s say that human time perception is one. The fly is approximately seven times faster and dogs are two times faster. But a turtle is only 0.38 of human time perception. But you should know, there is a difference in time perception between humans as well.

When I was younger, I thought I had all the time in the world. My summers felt so long with days of fighting dragons and adventures to defeat Darth Vader. But now my summers are nearly nonexistent. There has been evidence that time seems to go by faster as you get older. According to acclaimed neurologist Oliver Sacks, there was a study where a group of people in their 20s and a group of people in their 60s were asked to determine when they felt that three minutes went by. On average, the group of people in their 20s stopped the timer at 3 minutes and 4 seconds. On the other hand, the group of people in their 60s stopped the timer at an average of 3 minutes and 40 seconds. To them, physical time was 40 seconds faster than what they had felt. This shows that the internal clock of the older age group has slowed down as the group of people in their 20s were almost correct with their guess. There has not been an exact answer to why your internal clock changes as you get older. But many researchers support one particular theory. According to the National Institute of Health, when you are younger, you get to experience many new things. Because your brain is taking in so much new information and turning them to memories, time feels slower as you remember many more things happening to you in one day. But as you get older and become more experienced, your brain does not have to recreate memories of small events that you have already experienced. Because you have less memories within a day, time feels relatively short.

But the main question is, how can we try to make time feel longer? Before I answer that question, we are going to look at three main situations where time just naturally seems to slow down. The first is being in dangerous situations. I’m sure most of us can relate that when we are faced with a threat, everything seems to be moving in slow motion. But our brain doesn’t suddenly work like a slo-mo camera. Everything has to do with our memory. In an interview with NPR, neuroscientist David Eagleman explains that when people are in dangerous situations, the memory function of our brain changes. In a normal situation, our brain sees our surroundings but doesn’t necessarily convert them into memories. However, in a threatening situation, our brain processes everything we see into memories. Because we have more memories that are processed in a short amount of time, our mind makes us feel as if time has stretched. 

And another way to lengthen our time is by sleeping, more precisely dreaming. In neurologist Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” he writes about the French scholar Alfred Maury. One night, Maury had a dream that he was part of the French Resistance during the French Revolution. When he lost, he was taken to court and sentenced to death by the guillotine. When the knife struck down and cut his head off he woke up. And he discovered that the bedpost had fallen right on his neck. Now keep in mind that Maury’s dream was over a time span of around three years. But Maury didn’t believe he saw the future coming. He came to a conclusion that as soon as the bedpost had hit his neck, he had dreamed everything from the beginning of the French Revolution to his death. He concluded that time in dreams is much faster than time in real life. And this seems to be true. According to Medical News Today, people dream an average between 3-6 dreams per night. These dreams usually do not last longer than 25 physical minutes, yet people feel as if they have lived through a longer passage of time. This idea is explored in Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception. Everytime Leonardo DiCaprio is sent to a dream, his adventures are days to years long, however, when he wakes up, only a few seconds or minutes has gone by. 

The final situation where time seems to slow down is when professional athletes perform their sport. According to Dr. Nobuhiro Hagura, his study discovered that athletes who play a fast-paced sport are able to process visual information much faster than the average human. Similar to how the amount of memories from a passage of time causes time perception to change, the amount of visual information taken in can also cause time to feel faster or slower. Because athletes take in much more visual information in a moment, they feel as if things are moving slowly. This is how baseball players are able to hit balls flying at 90 mph and how martial artists are able to defend themselves within milliseconds. But it comes with a lot of training. 

However, we humans cannot always be involved in dangerous situations or sleeping all the time. Nor are all of us going to become professional athletes. The best way to lengthen our time perception is by trying and learning new things in order to fill your mind with more memories.

So today, I’ve talked to you about the difference of internal clocks between different species, why time seems to fly by as you get older, and finally, how to lengthen your time perception. But in the end, physical time is always the same. And it doesn’t matter how long you try to make time. It’s about how you spend it. But back to that pesky fly. Now you know, you just have to be seven times faster.

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