In our hour on the many ways humans experience time, we heard from Claudia Hammond, author of the new book “Time Warped: Unlocking The Mysteries Of Time Perception.” Here are some of our favorite excerpts from the show.
On boredom and paying attention to time:
We actively construct our own experience of time in our minds, and that’s why it warps and that’s why it plays tricks on us. And various things will influence that — our emotions will influence it, how much attention we’re paying to something will influence it. So if you start paying attention to time itself — like if you’re really, really, really bored — then time will fell as if it’s going really slowly. When you pay no attention to time at all, and you’re having fun and you’re doing nice things, then as people say, “Time flies.”
How weekends and vacations pass by so quickly and what you can do to slow them down:
Weekends do go by very, very fast, but you can make them go more slowly if you want to and that is by filling them with lots of new activities and different things so that you create these new memories. I call this the holiday paradox. You go on holiday and everything’s new and you can go and see loads of new things in a day and you create all these new memories and it’s all really good fun. And in no time at all you’re halfway through the week, and you’re thinking, “I’ve been looking forward to this for ages, and where’s it gone?” But when you get back, it can suddenly feel as if you’ve been away for longer than that. Then it feels longer looking back. And that’s again because we look at time in these two ways: right now and also retrospectively. And retrospectively, your holiday was full of new memories and experiences — whereas, in an average fortnight, if you ask people to remember all the thins they’ve done, people only remember on average about six to nine different things they’ve done because there are so many things that we do that are repeated in life. But on holiday, there’s loads of new things. And so what you need to do if you want the weekend to seem longer is to fill it with new experiences — go and do something new on Saturday morning and something else on Saturday afternoon and fill it all up. And by the time you get to Monday morning, it’ll feel as if the weekend were longer than it was. Now, obviously you’ve got to trade rest for doing that, and you may just want to rest and put your feet up — the weekend will go faster if you do that.
How fear influences your sense of time:
Because we feel so afraid, for a start, fear begins to narrow our focus. So you stop noticing like the other cars going past or the music changing on the radio or all those markers of time that are out there. You stop noticing those things. Also, emotion creates very, very strong memories. So your memory of your car accident or my mugging, they’re etched very strong into our minds. One neuroscientist in the states, Bud Craig, his theory is that we actually count time by registering, if you like, emotional moments. If something really terrifying is happening, then we keep registering, “I’m terrified right now and now and now,” and they check, check, check again and again. Actually they count more of those moments and that seems as if more times has passed and as if the time has gone really slowly because you’re so terrified.
The two ways humans think about time:
We look at time in two ways. We look at it prospectively — we say how fast is time going right now? Am I enjoying myself? Am I bored? How fast is it going now? And then we also look back retrospectively. And retrospectively it can sometimes feel very different. So if you’re ill, if you’ve got the flu, that week you’d give anything to feel better again and the time absolutely drags and everyday goes by so slowly while you’re waiting to feel better. But when you look back, there’s very few memories being made in that time because you’ve done so little. And when you look back, that time will seems shorter, whereas all those people looking back on those terrifying moments, it will seem a long time because they’re going to remember all those things because that is something that has never happened to them ever before in their lives.
On being completely absorbed in something:
Some people will deliberately seek this timelessness, if you like. There’s this concept known as “flow,” where if you’re really, really absorbed in something and people, if they’re lucky, can find the things in their life that give them flow. Some people find that it might find it’s gardening or doing a painting. But you can do something for hours and hours and be completely unaware of the time passing because you’re so absorbed by it. People will almost describe that as a stepping outside time itself. It’s not that time is going fast. It’s not that time is going slowly. You’ve almost stepped outside it, and it doesn’t feel as if it’s carrying on anymore.
Two interpretations of “move the meeting forward” and what it says about your relationship to time:
It divides people absolutely half and half. And so if you say to people Wednesday’s meeting is being moved forward two days — what day is it now? People will often say, “Oh, I always get this wrong.” And they don’t actually get it wrong; what they mean is they’ve had situations where other people say the other answer. What this does represent, your answer to this question — and people can answer it very instinctively and very fast — and your answer does show how you see time. So if you answer Monday to that, it’s that you stay still and you see time coming towards you. The summer’s coming, the vacation’s coming, Christmas is coming. If you answer Friday, then you see it the other way around; you see yourself as going off forward into time. I’m going towards the summer, I’m going towards Christmas. And this does seem to split people in a really interesting way. And there are times when it changes. So if there’s something that people are dreading, like the dentist or exams, then they’re more likely to seem them as coming towards them. But on the whole, people have this very set view of the way that they see it.
On unbearable waiting:
Waiting, of course, is something — particularly when people aren’t in control of how long that waiting will be for — is something that can really, really slow down [time]. For my book, I spoke to the BBC journalist Alan Johnston who was held hostage for four months. He didn’t know when he was in Gaza that he was only going to be held for four and a half months…he didn’t know it was going to be years and years. He said if you want to imagine what it’s like, then you should get a room in your house and take everything out apart from one plastic chair. And you sit there for say three hours, and then have a little walk about, sit there fro another four hours, then sit there for another three hours. And still it’s ages before it’s time to go to sleep. There is something about waiting that really makes time hang heavy.
On practicing mindfulness during unbearable waiting:
Because attention plays so much of a part in how we assess time passing, if you then try and control that attention then you can change your perception of how that time feels to you. One of of making time more bearable if you’re waiting on that train platform forever is to practice mindfulness, when people deliberately bring their awareness to the body and where they’re standing on the station and then deliberately notice all the different sounds, all the different senses, what you can see, what can you hear, and notice all those things. That can change the speed at which time feels it’s going and make it not seem so unbearable that you’re waiting there all that time.
How some people can accurately estimate the passage of time:
People with jobs that have some time related element to them, they do get very good at judging particular time frames as well. A lot of friends of mine who are clinical psychologists who have 50-minute sessions with their clients say without even looking at their watch — even though some sessions are really boring because the person’s a bit boring, and some sessions are much more interesting than others — they still always know when it’s exactly 50 minutes. I’d imagine that you [Tom] as a radio host like me, you know what a minute feels like or you know what 30 seconds feels like. If that 30 seconds is coming up to the end of your program, you know exactly what that feels like. So people will get used to very different time frames. And there’s been various studies done with musicians, who are particularly good at millisecond time frames because, of course, getting the milliseconds right is essential for music and is what makes us understand music, what makes music work is that there are these millisecond timings that are just right.
How some people actually visualize time:
We know that one in five people seem to, in some sense, visualize time. And this is thought of as a type of synesthesia where different sense cross over. So this might be as simple as people having colors for days of the week that they see every time. Or a lot of people see the months of the year laid out before them. So I imagine always imagine when anybody mentions any month and says, “Are you free in September?” to do something — I imagine the year is like an oval and, in my case, it’s anti-clockwise and in more people’s cases it goes anti-clockwise than clockwise. But some people have much more elaborate versions. They will see the centuries as a wallpaper pasting table with wallpaper all coming off the end in rolls. They’ll see different things, the Elizabethans and everything all spread out. So they can be really quite extraordinary things that people see in their mind’s eyes — their way of understanding time, in a sense.
On how age influences your sense of time: