Time either flies or it crawls. Here’s why

Our experience of time is all in the mind, says Anna Salleh writing for ABC Science. Most of us will have the experience that if you’re waiting for something to happen then it can seem to take forever – and particularly so if you’re frustrated or if you’re the impulsive type.

We don’t yet fully understand how the brain processes time. However, research by German psychologist Marc Wittmann has shown that different people can judge an extended period of time as lasting anything from a third to nearly triple its duration – an almost tenfold difference. Indeed, while we’re generally good at tracking time in terms of seconds (for example, when talking or driving), if that extends to periods of over five seconds then we become far less precise.

The ability to track time is in fact fundamentally based on attention. If you’re having fun or are focused on a task, then you won’t notice the passage of time as you aren’t paying attention to it. Meanwhile, as we grow older, time can seem to pass more quickly – a year in the life of an 80-year-old is a far shorter relative span than in the life of a child, of course. Memories also act as milestones to mark time – and the older that we get, the fewer brand new things there are to do. Conversely, when experiencing negative events, the brain will often fire and hence enhance our recall – meaning that unpleasant memories then have a habit of playing back in slow motion through our minds.

Why does time fly … or not? It’s all in your mind

Image: Unsplash/steven avila

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