St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous),
Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
People have been using the phrase ‘time flies when we’re having fun’ for ages without actually realizing the possibility of a scientific explanation backing it up. It’s when we are in dire need of more time that time seems to be moving at its fastest pace.
Time has always been a matter of great interest and conflict for scientists since time immemorial. Einstein himself concluded that time is but an illusion. Branching out from that, time perception has grown to be a matter of great interest and curiosity. Researchers are yet to come up with a definite answer for the question posed, ‘does time really fly when we’re having fun?’. Nevertheless, we do have a few possible answers.
What is Time Perception?
Going by definition, time perception refers to the subjective aspect of time. The duration of an event is open for interpretation by an individual based on their attention span, their emotional state of mind, and also their memory. For example, haven’t we all experienced at least one seemingly long sleepless night before a school trip that we were excited about? The reverse is also true. We waited till the last day to finish our assignment and couldn’t believe how fast time was moving when we’ve only written 2 lines.
Systems involved in Time Perception
How we perceive time depends on not one but multiple stimuli; cognitive and environmental. According to Mark Wittmann, a researcher at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, there is no system in the brain that is exclusively responsible for recording the passing of time. It is in fact complementary systems of the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and basal ganglia. However, there exists a particular area, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is responsible for maintaining the circadian rhythm, the biological clock responsible for maintaining our sleep-wake cycle.
Theories that might explain Time Perception:
1. Biological Stopwatch
This is one of the theories of great interest according to which there is the emission of the constant flow of pulses along with subconscious tallying of how many of those were produced on a certain amount of time. For example, our brain may perceive 100 pulses as a minute. It is believed that there exists not one but multiple biological stopwatches that come into play based on the tasks we are involved in.
The biological stopwatch is believed to utilize memory control, metabolism regulation, sensory input processing mechanisms to time pulses. It is the sensitivity to stimuli of these systems that the brain perceives different numbers of pulses per minute depending on the stimuli and our mood, health, etc. This could be the reason behind the concept of time passing by slow or fast.
2. The Strength model
Given by William Friedman, this theory suggests that there may persist something called a memory trace which could aid in the judgment of how old memory is by virtue of the strength of that trace. The older the memory, the weaker is the trace.
However, this model comes in direct conflict with another feature which states that when an older memory is more prominent in terms of the effect it had on us, it may stay with us longer than some more recent memories.
3. The Inference model
This model suggests that the time of a certain event doesn’t simply depend on some part of the memory itself but on the information inferred from related circumstances whose time and date is known.
This model however is considered too complex for animals other than humans and also considered more relevant for distant events rather than recent ones.
Factors That Affect Time Perception:
Disorders such as ADHD, Parkinson’s, Autism, Schizophrenia, and depression can cause impairments in time perception.
In the case of ADHD, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia, these are disorders linked to abnormal dopamine levels in the brain which might be the reason behind an impaired time perception as dopamine is believed to be linked to the internal clock.
In the case of autism, people suffering from this disorder were found to lack the ability to differentiate between past and present events and link them to current happenings.
People suffering from depression suffer from cognitive disturbances that affect motivation towards performing tasks. This may in turn give rise to disturbances that affect time perception.
Based on auditory and optical signals, our emotional responses are triggered which has an effect on how we perceive time. When we perceive something as a threat, the internal physiological processes tend to speed up and put the person in an aroused state which may make the outer world seem to be moving at a relatively slower pace. For example, the moment the bike slips and we sense that we’re falling, even though the entire incident lasted merely a few seconds, which under normal circumstances is way too short to realize what exactly happened, we feel and later recall every little thing that happened between the bike slipping and us finally finding ourselves on the ground.
Similarly, when we’re happy and enjoying a vacation, time seems to pass by really quick. Whereas when we’re bored or really uncomfortable in a situation and just can’t wait to get out of it, time seems to be moving as slow as a snail.
Time perception is believed to depend on the mental images that our brain encounters and the way it organizes them. This is dependent on the state of our brain which changes as one age. As we get older, our brain undergoes physical changes that affect vision, the complexity of pathways in the brain, and later on the degradation of those pathways. This in turn affects our ability to process those mental images which leads to the feeling of time moving faster.
Studies have shown that the relationship between the processing of stimuli and the sense of time moving faster is inversely proportional. When we are young and experiencing things for the first time, the constant inflow of new stimuli is actually giving a sense of time passing slower. Whereas as we grow old, the inflow of new stimuli slows down and hence time seems to be passing by faster than before.
The concept of time perception has been of interest not just in the scientific field. Philosophers over time have also mentioned a great deal about this topic in their publications. Being a topic of great complexity ongoing research has been putting at our disposal possible new theories and explanations for this phenomenon.
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