As many parts of the world begin to ease out of lockdown, large numbers of us are left with an unnerving sense that time appears to have evaporated with startling speed. The strange thing about this year-long time-warp is that, when first told we’d be facing months of potential boredom and confinement, we might have anticipated time inching by more slowly than ever before. But in retrospect, all those months went by in an apparent flash. Why?
While it may be too soon for extensive research to have been done on this particular phenomenon, if we look closely at a few aspects of time-psychology and perception, we can see several reasons this might be the case. What’s more, our experience might well have given us an important contrast from which to better understand our relationship with time – and even make that relationship better. Who wouldn’t want to look back from 2022 with a different perspective, and a sense that we’ve had ‘more’ time than ever before?
How to Make Time Fly (or Slow Down): Embrace the New
We estimate time passing in two ways: prospectively (how fast is time passing right now?) and retrospectively (how fast did last week – or the year – go by?). Let’s look at the example of lockdown. The blurring of identical days into one another means we create fewer new memories, which are crucial to our sense of time perception.
Memories inform our judgement of how much time has passed; a week’s holiday to a new place, full of unfamiliar experiences, makes time speed by in the moment. But when you return home, all those new memories can make it seem as if you’ve been away far longer than a week. Conversely, when confined to our homes or any static environment, even if the days seem to pass slowly as we live them, in any given week we have made fewer new memories than usual; looking back, time seems to have disappeared, or contracted.
So, how can we avoid the sensation that time has flown by after the fact? Seek out new experiences. Exciting activities, visiting new places, meeting new people – all of these novel situations will create heightened senses and memories. While time might fly in the moment – the more fun, the better – our retrospective perception of time will have expanded. Even varying your routing slightly can make a difference; a new route to work, a change of scenery, cuisine, topics of conversation – all these can be the key to altering our mental clock.
How to Gain Time: Change your Mind
Most of us tend to think of time as linear, absolute and constantly “running out” – but is that really true? And how can we change our perceptions to feel better about its passing? Although neuroscientists have been unable to locate a single clock in the brain that is responsible for detecting time passing, humans are surprisingly good at it. As a result, most of us would say that how time functions is fairly obvious: it passes, at a consistent and measurable rate, in a specific direction – from past to future.
But physics tells a different story. However much time feels like something that flows in one direction, some scientists beg to differ. In the last century, Albert Einstein’s discoveries exploded our concepts of time. He showed us that time is created by things, and varies from place to place in the universe. He demonstrated that time is relative, moving more slowly if an object is moving fast.
Events don’t happen in a set order. There isn’t a single universal “now”, in the sense that Newtonian physics would have it. Time is not always segmented neatly into the past, the present and the future. Some physical equations work in either direction.
Which means that the human experience of time is actively created by our minds, and various factors play a part in the construction of our perception of time – memory, concentration, emotion and the sense we have that time is somehow located in space.
Our perceptions don’t keep up with the science – and we can only create our everyday experience of the world using the senses we possess. So, even if we can’t change our inherent perceptions of time, we might be able to change the way we think about it – and perhaps feel better about its passing, and ourselves, as a result.
In our ‘WEIRD’ culture (that’s Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Developed), we can be prone to perceiving ourselves as ‘time poor’. It seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish what we want or make those deadlines, so we can be susceptible to rushing around like mice in a maze. Time pressure makes us walk faster, drive faster, impairs performance, and adds to workplace stress. It’s no surprise that the idea of living in the “now” and experiencing a sense of timelessness has grown so popular.
So, how do we change our mental attitude to time? It can start with a simple change in the words we use within our own thoughts. Imagine ‘zooming in’ to a digital photograph – you are looking at the same image, the same information contained within thousands of tiny pixels; but seeing one part close up, in great detail, can make the whole picture appear vast.
Neuro-linguistic Programming is a psychological approach used by athletes, actors, entrepreneurs, and bio-hackers alike. Its principles suggest that we can change our perception of a given reality by changing the constant thoughts we have about it. Continuous thoughts about a lack of time colours our emotional state. Examine the words or thoughts you commonly associate with time; for example, if you usually think some variation on “I’m late, hurry up, we have to go, I need more time, time is running out, I don’t have time for this” you can begin to feel trapped, controlled, and deprived.
Try actively thinking (what some might call an ‘affirmation’) that goes something like this: “I have plenty of time, I can take my time, there’s no rush, I am in control of my time.” These statements might feel awkward and inauthentic at first, but that’s the magic of NLP – the more you repeat them, the more familiar they become. Like building any muscle or learning any habit, they become stronger and more natural, until they are the default ‘program’ running in the mind.
How to Make Time Stand Still: Seek Awe
Therapy can be awesome. And when we say awesome, we mean it in the original sense – creating a sense of awe. Experiences that fill us with wonder and amazement may even improve our mental health and make us nicer people, claim psychologists. The findings raise the prospect of “awe therapy”.
Awe is the emotion felt when encountering something so vast and overwhelming it alters one’s mental perspective. Examples might include experiencing a breathtaking view of the Grand Canyon, taking in the ethereal beauty of the Northern Lights, or becoming lost in a dazzling display of stars on a clear, dark night. The new research found that by fixing the mind to the present moment, awe seems to slow down perceived time.
A study led by the University of Edinburgh has shed new light on the biological mechanisms that drive the process, known as flashbulb memory. The research involving mice reveals how attention-grabbing experiences activate a specific area of the brain, which then releases memory-boosting chemicals such as dopamine. The result? Our brains push pause – and time doesn’t only stand still, better memory formation means, again, that we look back on a (subjectively) longer moment, day, or year.
How to Make the Moment Last: Look a Little Longer
Eye contact plays a crucial role during social interactions. Engaging in a mutual gaze demonstrates that we are engaged, interested, and attending to the people involved. Why then, do we only make eye contact for brief periods of time? One hypothesis is that prolonged eye contact (that’s more than 5 seconds) elicits a higher degree of arousal.
One study investigated whether prolonged eye contact could distort our perception of time: two participants estimated when one minute had passed while sitting next to one another and maintaining three different poses: looking at the wall, looking at their partner’s profile, or making eye contact with their partner.
Participants made much longer time estimates when they made eye contact, as opposed to when they looked at another person or just sat next to another person.
The conclusion? Prolonged eye contact causes time to slow down. So, while it’s not recommended to stare into the eyes of strangers on the subway, it’s entirely possible to make a moment last a little longer with your significant other, friend, or even your pet… by gazing (affectionately, we hope) into their eyes.
How to Master Time: K.I.S.S. (that’s Keep it Simple, Stupid)
And if all that psychology sounds too complicated (or you – supposedly – ‘don’t have enough time’ to get to grips with it) you might want to try these poetic shortcuts from author Matt Haig instead: How to stop time: kiss. How to travel in time: read. How to escape time: music. How to feel time: write. How to release time: breathe.