Yesterday I went for a walk around a part of London I didn’t know well at all. I was out for about 90 minutes, but it felt more like four hours. Even though it was a relatively small part of the day, it was highly memorable, and (more importantly) enjoyable. It served as a great reminder that when we expose ourselves to new experiences and new environments, our perception is drastically altered. We effectively make time feel longer.
Time feels longer for children
The reverse effect happens at a macro level as we grow up: whereas childhood summers felt like they stretched forever, a year can pass by in a flash once we reach old age. This is particularly true when we move from a phase of predominantly learning (in school) to predominantly working (often in the same office for years on end).
This might not seem like a big deal until we acknowledge that our perception of the world around us is really all we have. Just as food only really tastes the way we taste it, time is subjectively experienced too. Of course, we know there are just over 24 hours in a day, but what does that really matter if the day feels like it’s flown by with nothing really happening?
The neuroscience behind how time feels
Neuroscientists disagree about exactly how the brain keeps track of time, but it does seem that unlike other senses, time runs through everything we do. For instance, we tend to have an idea of how long a song has been playing, or how long a taste has lingered on our tongue, but most people couldn’t really say what a song tasted like. We can therefore alter our perception of time through manipulating our other senses. The first part of Einstein’s famous quote on relativity is a nice example of this:
“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”Albert Einstein
How memory makes time feel longer or shorter
A further factor is memory. The more detailed our memory of an experience, the longer the moment seems to last. This is particularly true of terrifying or near-death experiences, as I can recall from being knocked off a scooter at age 16: what surely passed in at most a couple of seconds seemed to take forever as I flew through the air and over the bonnet of the car. This is because the amygdala is more engaged when we are put in dangerous or highly-stressful scenarios.
Is time speeding up?
Conversely, familiar scenarios without much sensory information we need to pay attention to can pass by quickly. This has been particularly true of lots of people’s lives during the pandemic, which have often involved a lot of similar days within the same four walls. Whilst the lockdown periods are memorable in the context of world history, individual days within them are likely to have compressed into each other such that you’d struggle to pick out particularly notable ones.
Arguably, the more general move towards working from home, online shopping, and having more entertainment is exacerbating this shrinking of time. Of course, this can be beneficial: most people don’t enjoy their commutes, or the drudgery of going to buy groceries, but the shrinking of our physical worlds could also shrink them in time, too.
How to make time feel longer
The antidote to this time compression seems to be to step outside our comfort zones to make our brains work a little harder. If we have to do more processing of new stimuli, that will take the brain more time, and the perception of that time will be longer.
“Time is this rubbery thing,” says neuroscientist David Eagleman. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”
Seven ways to make it feel longer
Here are some suggestions for making time feel longer that don’t involve moving to a new country or having a near-death experience:
- Start learning something new. Bonus points if you do it as part of a class where you meet new people.
- Visit new places. This can be going on a walk in a new part of town, or taking a real or virtual vacation.
- Find ways to interact with new people. If you’re working remotely, working from a (different) coffee shop can be a good way of doing this.
- Try a new activity, such as roller blading, or skydiving. Having to pay attention will make the experience feel longer.
- Schedule a surprise for a partner or close friend, and have them do the same for you.
- Listen to new music – not while you’re working, but really listening.
- Try a new restaurant with a cuisine you haven’t experienced before. Alternatively, try cooking a new dish