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Our perceptions of time vary (or why a watched pot never boils)

We perceive time either retrospectively (by using the brain’s memory traces) or prospectively (by using the brain’s attentional mechanisms).

Science addresses why time seems to fly when we’re having fun with friends, but not when we’re, say, attending a boring lecture.

Writing in the August issue of the Psychologist, Israeli psychologist Dan Zakay explains why a watched pot never boils, why times flies when you’re having fun, and why the trip back from someplace always feels shorter than the trip that got you there.

It has to do, says Zakay, with “one of the most important aspects of psychological time” — our imperfect and biased perception of duration.

We perceive time either retrospectively (by using the brain’s memory traces) or prospectively (by using the brain’s attentional mechanisms), and several factors affect each of these very different processes, explains Zakay.

When awareness of time is not important (when we’re reading a good book or enjoying the company of friends, for example), any time-duration estimation of the activity will be retrospective, Zakay says. Research has also shown that the length of our retrospective estimates of time intervals tend to rely on how much information we processed during the interval. The more information we processed (the greater the attentional demands of the experience), the longer we judge the amount of time that passed.

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Thus, time seems to fly when we’re having fun with friends, but not when we’re, say, attending a boring lecture. “Attending a boring lecture is like being in ‘empty’ time,” writes Zakay, “because the information seems to be not useful for us so we are not processing it. Most of our attentional resources will be allocated to prospective timing” — in other words, on checking our watches (or the digital clock on our smart phones).

However, when time-duration is important to a situation — a factor called temporal relevance — our estimation of the interval automatically becomes prospective. A case in point: waiting in a long security-line at the airport when you’re late for a flight. “In such situations,” writes Zakay, “the more attention that is allocated directly for time, the longer the duration will be experienced.”

Thus, watched pots take forever to boil (and security lines take forever to get through).

Here are Zakay’s explanations of how other situations distort our time perceptions (warning: British spellings and punctuation):

Why earthquakes feel longer than they are:

Some studies indicate that people experience the duration of earthquakes in the range of minutes, as compared with its actual range of 30-40 seconds. The passage of time during an earthquake is highly relevant: it is a threatening event and people want it to terminate as soon as possible. They focus on “When will it be over?’, the attentional gate is wide open and the duration estimation becomes longer.

Why the return trip feels shorter:

When we have to be somewhere at a certain time for an important event, on the way there time relevance is high. That is why prospectively we experience the duration as being longer. Returning to the starting point, although it is exactly the same distance, feels in many cases shorter than going there because time is not that important and so our attention is diverted or distracted by events occurring around us.

Why time slows when we’re in pain:

When we are in pain, temporal relevance becomes high, leading to the feeling that the pain is going on and on. Emotions in general are known to influence and sometimes distort time perception. … In some cases emotions demand attentional resources for coping with them, and then duration estimations will be underestimated. In other cases, especially when emotions have a threatening meaning like in the case of fear or pain, time relevance will be high. In such cases the duration estimation will be overestimated.

Conduct your own experiment

“Our sense of time is not accurate, though in most cases it is sufficient for our needs,” Zakey concludes.

Oh, and if you’re in doubt about humans’ inability to accurately judge the passage of time, Zakey recommends this experiment: Ask a group of people to clap 17 seconds after you do. “You may be surprised to find that there will be a wave of hand clapping, and the diversity of accuracy in estimating the duration of time will be high,” he says.

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If any MinnPost readers try the experiment, please let us know the results.

You can download Zakey’s article from the website of the British Psychological Society, which publishes the Psychologist monthly.