Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland:
Hatter: (tossing his head contemptuously) I dare say you never even spoke to Time!
Alice: Perhaps not, but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.
Hatter: Ah! That accounts for it. He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons, you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!
The perception of the passage of time can vary from one person to another and from one situation to another. We may have a watch on our wrist, but our own perception of time is made up by our senses. This internal timepiece enables us to measure the length of events of the day by comparing the experience of each event with similar ones in memory. In the process we build up a knowledge bank of the flow of time and an assessment of the passage of time.
Our level of focus and mood will make a huge difference. If you are tense because you are in a hurry, but are waiting for the toaster to pop up the toast, it can seem to take forever. If the activity you are involved in is boring, time seems to drag. Most parents will have heard the phrase “Are we there yet?” from the back seat of the motor car. When you are multi-tasking, however, the passage of time seams to speed up, because our attention is divided. A reduction in our ability to focus on any one task as we get older may produce the same result.
An event that creates an adrenaline rush from fear will cause our internal timepiece to seem to run more slowly. This may be linked to survival, providing you with enough perceived time to take evasive action or react to danger. Times of enjoyment seem to be over in a flash. I can remember saying “Do we have to go already? Just one more wave?” when we had a day at the beach. Perhaps we have more fun as we get older!
Our most definitive memories appear to be between the ages of 15 and 25, and if our frame of reference is from memories of this time, while the vividness of our memory may be on the wane, this could account for a change in our perception of its passage. If we develop various clinical conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, our accuracy in estimating time is also affected.
Can we maintain our hold on the judgement of the passage of time? Yes, if we can improve attention and memory, we can keep our internal timepiece in check. Completing puzzles such as Sudoku, reading thought provoking books, meditation and mindfulness can help. Television is a great way to switch off from the troubles of the day, but it has been proven to slow down the cognitive processes significantly, so the more you can avoid it, the better.
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Muireann Irish, Senior Research Officer at Neuroscience Research Australia
Claire o’Callaghan, Clinical research fellow, Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at University of Cambridge