When I was young, I had the distinct feeling that time was somehow standing still. Yes, the sun rose and set but the days seemed longer, experiences felt more heightened, and time itself seemed to stretch out so graciously that it was barely noticeable. Now that I’m older and busier, time seems to race by faster than I can measure. Weeks and months go by in a blink. This same phenomenon seems to be true for most people I know, which makes me wonder; if time hasn’t changed (a day has been 24 hours long whether we’ve been nine or forty nine) then why has our perception of time changed as we’ve gotten older? The short answer is – It may be because we’re not paying attention.
According to neuroscientist David Eagleman, the amount of information we process at a given moment greatly influences our perception of time – whether our days feel generously long or frantically short. “The more detailed [a] memory, the longer [a] moment seems to last,” he says. “This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older. Why 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… Time is this rubbery thing. It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”
Call me crazy, but if this is true, then this is really good news. By being in the moment, paying attention, learning new things and challenging ourselves to have new experiences, we may actually be able to slow time down, even if it’s only in our minds. Just how can we do this?
Belle Beth Cooper offers five easy ways in her blog post, The Science of Time Perception: Stop it Slipping Away by Doing New Things. Cooper advises:
1. Keep learning. If you’re constantly reading, trying new activities or taking courses to learn new skills, you’ll have a wealth of ‘newness’ at your fingertips to help you slow down time.
2. Visit new places. A new environment can send a mass of information rushing to your brain – smells, sounds, people, colors, textures. Your brain has to interpret all of this. Exposing your brain to new environments regularly will give it plenty of work to do, letting you enjoy longer-seeming days. This doesn’t necessarily mean world travels, though. Working from a cafe or a new office could do the trick.
3. Meet new people. We all know how much energy we put into interactions with other people. Unlike objects, people are complex and take more effort to ‘process’ and understand. Meeting new people, then, is a good workout for our brains.
4. Try new activities. Doing new stuff means you have to pay attention. Your brain is on high alert and your senses are heightened, because you’re taking in new sensations and feelings at a rapid rate. As your brain takes in and notices every little detail, that period of time seems to stretch out longer and longer in your mind.
5. Be spontaneous. Surprises are like new activities: they make us pay attention and heighten our senses. Anyone who hates surprises can attest to that. If you want to stretch out your day, this is a good way to do it. Try surprising your brain with new experiences spontaneously—the less time you give your brain to prepare itself, the less familiar it will be with any information it receives, and the longer it will take to process that time period.
Of course, we can’t really stop time or slow it down. But since many psychologists and scientists (including Albert Einstein) agree that our perceptions become our reality, isn’t putting the above into practice a great way to exist? At the very worst, we’ll have richer, fuller days, months and years. At best, it might make the difference between killing time, and having the time of our lives.