Time Perception: Where Did The Time Go?

By Rachel Lustbader

Updated February 07, 2020

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault

It's All in Your Head


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There is a field of study within psychology dedicated to addressing the subjective experience of time, delving into how it arose over the course of human evolution. It's been decided that time perception is not a purely innate process, but a complex character that we have developed over the course of our evolution, as well as which we learn during the span of our lifetime. The perception of time can differ significantly from person to person, based on different characteristics held as well as the interference of factors in the environment.

Colloquialisms like "a watched pot never boils" and "time flies when you are having fun" are based on how our enjoyment or discomfort in a situation affects the perception. The temporal illusions we all experience mark variation in the perception of the passage of time. Depending on your idiosyncratic experience, you may find yourself asking where did the time go.

Perception of time varies according to the way each person perceives events that they experience and the length of time the event it took for the event to happen. Human beings, as far as what can be determined, are the only animals to be aware of the passing of time and who can recall specific events of the past. Other animals relate to past by conditioning and instinct but are not able to actually 'remember' as humans do. Humans also realize the passing of time as related to mortality.

Perceiving time is not like our other senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch); it is a product of dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain. When receiving information, our brain reorganizes the data so we can more easily understand and we relate the information to something we already know, which takes very little time, or more time if it is new information. The more familiar we are with the information, the more quickly time seems to pass. This is why children perceive time as slowly passing and older people perceive time as passing quickly. We also perceive time according to our ability to hold attention to an event as it passes. If our attention is rapt and focused on a new event, the event seems to take longer.

It's All Related

As they say, you are what you eat and that includes your memory and perception of your sensory environment. The neurological system that oversees our time perception essentially serves as an internal clock that is impacted by our brain chemistry, with the duration, clarity, and selectivity of memory all coming into play. Adrenaline can change our perception of time. Which means that under periods of excitement, good or otherwise, our perception of an event is later recalled by the presence of a memory trace, which can be impacted by different neurotransmitter levels.

Our ability to remember past events and the strength of the memory also plays a part in our perception of passing time, how long ago the event happened and the links we have of that event to other events.

We put events in our past in sequence of when they happened and the duration of the event. As we mature, we have longer memories and more events to be put in sequence. We, therefore, perceive time as passing quickly. Children, on the other hand, have fewer events to remember and time passes for them slower. One scientist explained the phenomenon as a 60-year-old perceives one year as being one-sixtieth of their life and a 10-year-old perceives a year as one-tenth of their life.

Attention to what's going on around you is hugely important in your perceived measurement of the duration of an event. Perception of time is inextricable from memory; our memory of an event is what makes it seem long or short. Memory traces are essentially markers left in a certain region of the brain from an event.

Humans are also capable of changing, ignoring or blocking out troubling or disturbing events and perceive the time of that event as having an extremely short duration or long duration. Time seems to stand still or events seem to be in slow motion when we are experiencing fear. For example, a person experiencing a car crash experiences the crash in slow motion if they saw the crash coming. If they didn't see what happened, they experience the crash as having almost no duration. Studies have been done to determine lapsed time for someone suffering from a phobia. It was found that the event was perceived as lasting longer if it involved the person's phobia than the event was not part of the phobia. Our perception of time is impacted by the attention we pay to an event and the emotion we feel at the time of the event.

The tempo of our life accelerates from childhood to adulthood and accelerates, even more, when we are busy working and raising a family. This makes the past seem to have lasted longer and the events of the past five or ten years seem to have whizzed by. Another theory is that memory of the past dim and seem unclear over time and seem to have happened longer ago than when they actually did occur. More vivid memories seem to have happened more recently.

Our memory can also create and distort time and consider some memories as being absolutely accurate when they are not. Some psychologists believe that we have more vivid memories between middle teen years (15 - 18) and early adulthood (20 - 25). They believe that these are our most formative years when our brains latch on to vivid details and make memories stand out so that the events can be dated more accurately in time. It is also suggested that when a person in later years experiences a change in identity or a career change, the same thing happens.


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Where Did the Time Go

As we interact with the world, we reorganize the raw sensory information from the environment around us into something that we can understand. New information takes more time to coalesce into our world views than does information that we've been exposed to before, which can, in some situations, make our experience in time feel longer. The more familiar the task, the less the brain needs to work. We refer to these as habits, whereas tasks or events with which we are less familiar, need more attention or energy to be processed and understood. This can lead to an altered emotional state and may subsequently impact recall.


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Throughout our lives, we constantly view time passing by looking into the past and looking into the future. This is called 'retrospective and prospective' view of time. When these two views match, we are oblivious of time passing slowly or quickly. When they don't match, we make remarks of the strangeness of how we view time, such as "how the time has flown", or "where has the last decade gone?"

Mental health is inextricable from our experience as world citizens. With each area of the brain serving a unique yet combined purpose, overall health is important to keep them functioning at their best. BetterHelp is an online interface developed with the aim of connecting quality mental health professionals efficiently and affordably with those in need. Much is yet to be learned about how time is experienced and processed, but what is already known promises much individual application in improving understanding and comfort in life.


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