The concept of time has always intrigued man. From the likes of Aristotle to Einstein, thinkers of all generations have endeavoured to understand and explain this powerful phenomenon. Man has progressed from sundials to atomic clocks in his attempt to measure time accurately. And yet, the understanding of its experience escapes us. Time seems to pass faster when we are having a good time. As we enter our 20s, every passing year seems to go faster than the previous one. What causes this experience? What determines our sense of time?
Human beings have a surprisingly good sense of time. Every function of the body is performed to perfection and the timing, down to milliseconds, is impeccable. Although understanding the exact neurology of this precision is difficult, it has been found that different parts of the brain are responsible for recording different units of time. Some parts of the brain, particularly those working with auditory data, handle stimuli in milliseconds. Others keep track of time in terms of decades. Given that human beings are capable of gauging time accurately, the fact that time perception is often distorted makes for an interesting case.
As we grow older, the complaint that time is passing by too quickly increases in frequency. Every birthday seems to come quicker, and it seems like just yesterday that you were celebrating your 21st. Aging obviously does not make us travel faster through time. But why do we perceive it so?
William James wrote that time sped up in adulthood because there are fewer and fewer memorable events as we grow older. We tend to remember time in terms of ours ‘firsts’ – our first day of college, first party, first kiss, and so on. Since adulthood comprises fewer new experiences, it tends to pass by without really catching our attention.
But it is not just that. Two important characteristics of adulthood that influence time perception are stress and time pressure. Adulthood is wrought with paying bills, meeting work deadlines, and fulfilling family commitments. A recent study has shown that individuals in the age group of 20-59 are more receptive to statements indicating time pressure. The feeling of having too much to do and too little time to do it makes us feel like time is going faster. Conversely, individuals in their teen years or old age do not have professional or family commitments. The lack of time pressure and stress slows time down.
Perhaps the sense of fleeting time is strongest when we are engrossed in something we love and enjoy. Time spent with our friends passes before we know it. A vacation filled with wonderful experiences never seems long enough. As Virgil said, our sweetest hours fly the fastest. A recent study has shown that this is in fact true. Our perception of time is influenced by our emotional states and can lead to temporal illusions.
One reason why this occurs is because activities such as these engage our mental faculties. The result of focusing on the task being performed is our lack of awareness of the passage of time. Conversely, sitting idly or waiting in long queues feels arduously long because our mental faculties remain unengaged.
However, our perception of time in flashback is entirely different. Our judgement of time for a memory is vastly different from our judgement of time for the present. The same vacation that seemed to pass by too quickly is remembered vividly because of the numerous eventful incidences that occurred in the process. Thus, when we think of such a time, we tend to think of it as a long period of time studded with wonderful memories. Conversely, the arduously long time we spent waiting in queues does not add anything to our memory. When recalling such instances, time seems to have passed quickly even though it was excruciatingly long at that time. Flashback thus leads to a paradox in time perception. The time that passes quickly in actuality is recollected as a long, memorable duration. And the time that passes with agonising difficulty in actuality is barely remembered and not attributed as time-consuming.
Several other factors contribute to our perception of time: drugs, alcohol and even mental disorders affect how we experience time. Individuals with schizophrenia tend to merge sights and sounds over a 400 millisecond window as against a healthy window of 200 milliseconds. By taking 200 milliseconds longer to process, for these individuals, a moment is technically longer.
Given the several complexities involved, the concept of time continues to intrigue us. Life on the planet has been explained in terms of time. Our everyday life is organised based on time. It is the single most powerful concept that drives the world – an invisible concept that exerts its powers in myriad ways. Man may attempt at utilising it to the fullest; man may even create a time machine. But at the end of the day, the mystery of time will always baffle man. Because, as Einstein says, time is just an illusion.