Whether time seems to fly or crawl, most people are aware of its passage. What we think of as time may actually be neurochemicals interacting with an incredibly complex organic computer—your brain. In general, time may seem to go by faster as we grow older. Mental health conditions may also impact the way we perceive time. For instance, time blindness is often experienced by those with ADHD and autism, and it generally involves an inability to measure and estimate time accurately. If your perception of time has been negatively impacting your overall well-being, working with a therapist may be helpful.
What Is Time Perception?
The perception of time generally consists of all the sensory stimuli, cognitive processes, and environmental changes humans use to mark the passage and awareness of time. People can process the subjective experience of time and duration of events through a complex neural mechanism.
“Time perception is a fundamental element of human awareness. Our consciousness, our ability to perceive the world around us and, ultimately, our very sense of self are shaped upon our perception of time in a loop connecting memories of the past, present sensations, and expectations about the future.” — Authors of Feel the Time. Time Perception as a Function of Interoceptive Processing
The Tempo Of Life
According to the Proportional Reasoning Theory proposed by French philosopher Paul Janet in 1897, people’s perception of time usually increases as they age. In general, there may be vast differences between how a clock measures time and your awareness of it. Illustrated with an interactive visualization by Austrian designer Maximilian Kiener, the theory states, among other things, that by the time someone reaches age seven, they may have already perceived 50% of their life.
Where Did The Time Go?
A 2016 study confirmed that age can be linked to errors in the judgment and estimation of time. Participants were asked to estimate a two-minute time interval. Individuals over age 50 typically shortened the time by an average of 24.6%, compared to a group of 30-year-old contributors.
The Unbreakable Link Between Memory And Time
Your enjoyment or discomfort during an event usually shapes your memory of it and how long it seems to last. These temporal illusions can differ from person to person, so two individuals may experience the same event and remember it in entirely distinct ways.
One of the most substantial factors in how you remember the duration of an event can be the number of memory traces or mental images you form. Children tend to form more memory frames per time unit than adults, so they tend to remember events—and the passage of time—with more awareness. For example, if their brains were computers, children would typically have a higher frames-per-second rate and a substantially higher quality video than adults, particularly if the children had fun and the adults did not.
Brain Chemistry And Time Perception
Unlike the primary five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch), your sense of time is not generally based on concrete sensory information, but rather on levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the complex workings of your brain.
Functional MRI scans monitored brain activity while conducting research about time perception and reward reactions. A 2014 study showed there could be a significant link between severe mental health conditions and time perception/estimation abnormalities. A rare neurological condition called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome can also substantially alter a person’s experience of time.
Mental Health Conditions Affecting Time Perception
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Anxiety and related disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Eating disorders
- Parkinson’s disease
Time Distortion And Collective Trauma
According to a recent study, community-wide trauma, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantine, can drastically alter how people perceive time. While locked inside their homes, many people felt that time had slowed or stopped entirely. The change in routine, coupled with the deep discomfort caused by the situation, likely caused people to form more memory frames during quarantine, which potentially made time feel like it had stopped moving.
What Is Time Blindness?
Time blindness is generally defined as the inability to measure and estimate time accurately. It can be a frequent symptom of neurodevelopment disorders like autism and ADHD, and it typically goes hand-in-hand with an inability to effectively manage time through executive functioning. Time blindness can negatively affect nearly every aspect of someone’s life and may frequently lead to confrontation. Loved ones may benefit from treating it as a sensory issue, rather than an intentional disregard for others’ time and schedules.
Symptoms Of Time Blindness
- You may frequently become distracted and lose track of time.
- Procrastination because you think you have enough time can be a frequent occurrence.
- You sometimes feel as if your “internal clock” is off or not calibrated correctly.
- Losing track of time during transitions from one activity to another can happen often.
- You may chronically demonstrate poor time management skills.
- Boredom can be a frequent companion, and it may lead you to stop paying attention to your surroundings, so you may not form an accurate impression of time passing.
- You often exhibit impulsive behavior.
Overcoming Time Blindness
- Identify which areas of your life are most affected by time blindness and work to develop ways to establish a manageable method to keep track of time.
- Establish a set routine and use numerous alarms to keep you on track and on time.
- Use visible timers to keep watch and have the option to track time.
- Recognize which activities tend to take more time than you have and avoid them if time is a factor.
- Start small. While you may want perfect time perception right away, go slowly and start with something easy.
- Consistently remind yourself why you want to make this change.
- Break up large, complicated tasks into smaller, more manageable milestones.
Self-Regulation And The Experience Of Time
A 2013 study by Kathleen Vohs showed that self-regulation of emotions could dramatically affect the subjective passage of time. For the study, participants were asked to self-control their emotions while watching a video clip and estimating the amount of time that passed. The control group did the same without self-regulation. According to Vohs, people may believe self-regulatory efforts consume an extraordinary amount of time, which could potentially account for abandonment rates and the conviction that it “doesn’t work” after a single attempt.
Interoceptive Processing And Awareness Of Time
A recent study measured the connection between the perception of time and interoception or the sense of what is happening inside your body. Results indicate there may be a link between time perception and the interoceptive system, which may, in turn, link various mental health conditions with increased or decreased insular cortex activity in the brain.
Another study showed similar outcomes in individuals with and without cognitive disabilities. The results indicate there may be many statistically significant links between self-rated efficiency (with and without cognitive deficits), time management, organization, planning, parental sense of confidence, and other rating scales. However, researchers would be required to form a complete picture of how this information relates to human nature on a larger scale.
“The nature of time is rooted in our body. Constellations of impulses arising from the flesh constantly create our interoceptive perception and, in turn, the unfolding of these perceptions defines human awareness of time.” — Authors of a study on time perception and interoception
Reach Out For Help
Losing track of time, missing an appointment, or being late for a date may be minor events you can likely overcome on your own. However, if you’re missing chunks of time with no memory, frequently sense that time races or stands still, or have had time-related issues make a significant impact on your life, it may be time to reach out for help. Working with a licensed therapist can help you identify the source of your issues and plan a path of coping strategies and lifestyle changes to help you fix the problem.
How Therapy Can Help
Whether you’re struggling with the passage of time, experiencing time distortion due to a mental health condition, or merely want to reinforce positive thought patterns and behaviors, you might consider virtual therapy through online platforms. With lower costs and wait times, and a flexible appointment format from the comfort of your home, online treatment can be more straightforward and effective than ever before.
Online psychotherapeutic interventions can be effective and viable as a useful and convenient treatment avenue, according to a recent study. From cognitive behavioral therapy to interoceptive stimulation, internet-based sessions may be a convenient treatment option. One study showed that time management training could be an effective aid in the improvement of anxiety, depression, and sleep quality symptoms.
Where does time physically go?
Time, by itself, isn’t a physical object. It is a product of human perception; there are no literal “time particles” that push time along, at least not any outside of speculative theories. However, science has linked time with physics through the notion of spacetime (or space-time). Spacetime considers how time and physical reality intersect, and popular “fourth dimension” models of time emerge from the concept of spacetime.
Four-dimensionalism asserts that any physical object has different “temporal parts” for every instance in time in which it is located. Think of temporal parts as frames on a film strip. Each frame represents a snapshot in time, or a temporal part, of whatever is pictured within it. Much as a film strip creates the illusion of motion when it runs through a projector, the movement from one temporal part to another creates the illusion of time passing in space.
What happens to time when it is passed?
Despite phrases like “Where does the time go,” time is not a physical object and does not experience the effects of the physical universe in ways most humans intuitively understand. Time does not physically “pass” any point in space. Referring to time passing is a product of human perception, a part of the human experience that we can use to understand the world around us.
Time is relative, which in this case means that time exists relative to a physical object or object but is not a property of it. For humans, time tends to be kept by natural rhythms, like the rising and setting of the sun. The body’s master clock helps synchronize biological systems, but it, too, is relative. Like most uses of time, the master clock serves a synchronous function, meaning it helps bodily functions stay in rhythm with one another, much like people use clocks to stay in sync with one another.
Which way does time go?
On human scales, time’s arrow is always moving toward the future; it is not possible to move backward through time. However, a concept known as thermodynamic asymmetry may indicate that time is not so unidirectional at smaller scales. The laws of thermodynamics illustrate a concept known as entropy. In the physical world, any thermodynamic system can move from a high-order (or high-energy) state to a low-order state using the energy in the system but cannot move from a low-order state to a high-order state unless energy is added. The system will eventually reach equilibrium or maximum entropy if energy isn't introduced.
For example, consider a thermodynamic system consisting of an iron bar and a bucket filled with water. Before being introduced to the system, the iron bar is heated until bright red. Predicting the effects of such a simple system can be done intuitively; when the iron bar is dropped into the bucket, it will immediately heat and boil the water within (assume steam is trapped and condenses back into the bucket). The iron has a high-energy state, and the water has a low-energy state. The iron rod will continue to transfer heat until it is at the same temperature as the water around it. Once that point is reached, the system is at equilibrium, and no change will occur unless additional energy is added.
Humans intuitively understand energy can only move from high to low states. A ball won’t roll up a hill by itself, but placing it on top of a hill imparts it with potential energy from gravity, meaning the system has energy and is not in equilibrium. It is easy to see the energy asymmetry in a thermodynamic system; it can only move in one direction.
While the arrow of time in thermodynamic asymmetry is intuitive at human scales, mathematical models pose a problem. Consider the water bucket and iron bar system described above; if you were to zoom in on the water so much that you could see individual water molecules, you would notice that the arrow of time disappears. If you could record a video of two water molecules colliding, upon rewinding it, you wouldn’t be able to tell which way was forward and which way was backward. At the molecular level, the phenomenon that produces heat (molecules colliding) is time-symmetric, and is not necessarily bound by the laws of thermodynamics.
Is 1 hour in space 7 years on Earth?
It is a myth that one hour in space equals seven years on Earth, for the most part. The misconception is attributed to the movie Interstellar, and the “one hour, seven years” description refers to a fictional planet called “MIller’s Planet.” Miller’s Planet orbits a supermassive black hole named Gargantua, significantly slowing down time on the planet’s surface. Although Interstellar is fictional, the concept they refer to, time dilation, is real.
The concept of time dilation is defined by Albert Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity. Special relativity defines the relationship between an object’s mass, its velocity, and time. It states that as an object approaches lightspeed, its mass becomes near infinite, and time slows proportionately. Theoretically, a person moving at or near lightspeed would experience a stoppage of time around them.
General relativity incorporates gravity into Einstein’s theory and is where Interstellar derives its inspiration for the passage of time on Miller’s Planet. It states that the closer an object is to a source of gravity, the slower time moves relative to areas with lower gravity. In Interstellar, the gravity of the black hole is strong enough to slow time sufficiently such that one hour on Miller’s Planet equates to seven years on Earth.
Is time a dimension?
Time is often referred to as a proper dimension, although physicists aren’t satisfied with that description. The concept of describing time as the fourth dimension arises from the problems encountered when trying to describe the positions of objects in spacetime. Consider a standard X-Y plane. Y is the vertical axis, and X is the horizontal axis. One can use coordinates (X, Y) to plot the position of an object on the plane.
Now, imagine that the plane is transformed into a cube with equal sides. While the plane was two-dimensional, the cube is three-dimensional and thus has another axis to represent the third dimension, Z. As before, coordinates can be used to plot an object's position within the cube, this time with the points (X, Y, Z). To mark exactly where something is in the cube, one merely needs to know where it falls on each of the three axes.
While three dimensions work fine for navigating a three-dimensional physical world where nothing changes, problems emerge when considering an object’s position in time, also called its temporal position. In our original cube model, an object cannot occupy the same space that another object occupies. Once an object is located at certain coordinates, nothing else can occupy that space.
Of course, spacetime - and real life - consider time and change. Our original cube model doesn’t consider movement; objects are fixed in place, and time does not progress. By adding a fourth dimension to the cube, time, it is possible for two objects to occupy the same physical space, so long as they do it at different times. This creates a four-coordinate system, commonly represented as (X, Y, Z, W). An object’s position in time is now factored into its location in spacetime. As with the 2nd and 3rd dimensions, two objects can't simultaneously occupy the same coordinates.
Is it possible to travel time?
Physical time travel between the past, future, and present, like that portrayed in movies and TV shows like Dr. Who, is impossible. While fringe theories exist, often based around wormholes, black holes, and string theory, they are all speculative and based only on educated guesses of scientists. A person can only travel toward the future, even if where it takes them is not the future they wanted in the first place.
While physically traveling time is likely the stuff of science fiction, at least for the foreseeable future, it is possible to modulate your perception of time. Humans don’t always feel the motion of time the same way. For example, many people report “time blindness” - a failure to notice that time has passed, often for hours - when highly engaged in an interesting task. While human perception may be malleable, the laws of physics are more rigid, and until science fiction becomes reality, it is the only connection to time travel we have.
Is time created by the brain?
Time isn’t created by the brain per se, but it is often considered a product of human perception. Instead of saying that time is “created” by the brain, it might be more accurate to say that the brain enables the sensation of time passing to occur. The brain even has an internal clock, likely located in the right prefrontal cortex, to estimate how much time has passed.
Despite the brain’s neural mechanisms for tracking time, human perception of time isn’t always accurate. A person’s sense of time is not always prioritized in their consciousness; “time blindness” is a frequent occurrence in people who are highly engaged in a task at their job or home. It occurs when a person’s feeling of the passage of time is not present. In that sense, the brain also has some control over time, or at least how important its perception is at a given moment.
Is time finite or infinite?
Time is infinite. It is not a resource to be consumed or a physical reserve that can be depleted. The human perception of time is simply a way to conceptualize changes in the physical world. Consider a cup of liquid water. The water molecules are constantly moving and colliding, and it is that energy that lets the water stay in its liquid state.
Now, let’s introduce some science fiction. Imagine you have a magical button that, when pressed by your research partner, stops time for everything and everyone except the two of you. You also have magical goggles that let you zoom in on the water molecules in the cup until you can see them individually. At this scale of the goggles, you can’t see anything but the molecules and how they interact with each other. Progressively, you lower the water’s temperature until it reaches absolute zero, or the temperature where all molecular motion stops.
From your perspective, while wearing the goggles, how would you know whether your fellow researcher had hit the “stop time” button or if you had reached absolute zero? In both cases, you would perceive that all motion among the water molecules stops. Without change (in this case, motion), perceiving time is impossible, but time hasn’t “run out.” When the water is re-warmed from absolute zero, motion will resume, and time will appear to “restart.” That is why time is infinite. In any system (including all of existence), the length of time between states will always be measurable as long as there is enough energy for change to occur.
Why did Einstein say time is an illusion?
When Einstein spoke of time being an illusion, he was referring to the relative nature of time. The way an object experiences time depends on what reference frame that object has. Consider two cars traveling down the highway side-by-side. Car A is traveling 60 miles per hour, and Car B is traveling 65 miles per hour. From the reference frame of an observer standing on the side of the road, both cars appear to be traveling around 60 MPH. However, from Car A’s reference frame, Car B appears to be moving around five miles per hour.
This is the illusion Einstein's words refer to. Depending on where you’re observing from, the cars appear to be moving at drastically different rates. Of course, both cars were moving at a constant velocity; the relative speed difference was solely based on the observer's reference frame.
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