Time Perception: Where Did The Time Go?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated July 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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You may have noticed that time never seems to pass at a steady rate—at times, it may seem to “fly,” while other moments may crawl along slowly. This experience highlights the subjective nature of time perception: while we may measure time objectively with clocks and calendars, our internal experience of it can vary dramatically.

Here, we’ll explore time perception, the factors that can influence it, and some common disorders that can affect the way we perceive time. 

Getty/AnnaStills
Does time often feel like it’s slipping away or standing still?

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 neuroscience of time perception

While the neural mechanisms of time perception are not fully understood, researchers have identified the frontal cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum as key areas involved. These areas collaborate to process temporal information, from milliseconds to hours. Neurotransmitters like dopamine are crucial in modulating time perception, influencing how we estimate durations and intervals. 

Additionally, studies using functional MRI have shown that different tasks and durations activate various brain regions, highlighting the brain's adaptability in perceiving time across different contexts and scales.

Conditions affecting time perception

The perception of time is not only a matter of cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms but is also influenced by psychological factors and mental health conditions. 

The following mental health conditions may affect the way individuals perceive the passage of time.

  • Depression
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety and related disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Autism

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. 

Time blindness

Time blindness is the inability to measure and estimate time accurately. Though not an official diagnosis, it can be a symptom of neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and ADHD, and it typically goes hand-in-hand with an inability to effectively manage time through executive functioning. 

Symptoms of time blindness include:

  • Frequently becoming distracted and losing track of time;

  • Procrastinating, thinking there's more time available than there actually is; 

  • Feeling like your internal sense of time is inaccurate;

  • Often losing track of time during activity transitions;

  • Exhibiting chronic poor time management skills;

  • Experiencing frequent boredom, leading to a disconnection from your environment and a skewed perception of time passing.

  • Exhibiting impulsive behavior, impacting the ability to manage time effectively.

Time blindness can impact various aspects of life, including work performance, academic achievement, personal relationships, and daily living activities. While it can be frustrating, loved ones may benefit from treating it as a sensory issue, rather than an intentional disregard for others’ time and schedules. 

iStock/Edwin Tan

Tips for improving time perception and management

If you struggle with temporal awareness or time management, there may be some steps you can take to improve. Consider the following tips:

  • Establish a routine: Create a structured daily schedule to enhance the predictability of your day. This can help stabilize your internal clock and improve your ability to manage time efficiently.

  • Practice mindfulness: Engage in mindfulness exercises to increase your awareness of the present moment. This can help you become more attuned to the passage of time and manage it more effectively.

  • Use time-tracking tools: Tools like timers and alarms can help you keep track of how long tasks take and to remind you to move on to the next activity. This external support can aid in better time management.

  • Prioritize tasks: Determine the urgency and importance of your tasks. Focus on completing high-priority items first to ensure you're using your time where it's most needed.

  • Set realistic goals: Break down your tasks into achievable objectives and set deadlines that are attainable. This approach can prevent overwhelm and improve task completion rates.

  • Reflect regularly: At the end of each day or week, review how you've spent your time. Identify what worked well and what didn't, and adjust your strategies accordingly for continuous improvement in time management..

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

Getty
Does time often feel like it’s slipping away or standing still?

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. 

Takeaway

Your perception of time can change drastically throughout the course of your life. In most cases, time seems to move more quickly as we age. Various mental health conditions can also have an effect on time perception. The concept of time blindness, or a general inability to accurately measure and estimate time, can often be a symptom for those living with autism and ADHD. If the way you perceive time has impacted your quality of life in a negative way, it may be beneficial to work with a therapist online or in person.
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