Despite the fact that the Earth’s rotation is actually slowing down, it feels like time has been moving faster and faster the older I get. I used to feel that I could do a lot in a day– now I feel lucky if I can get just one thing done. A year used to feel like an eternity– now they feel like they fly by in a blink. Is time acceleration a real phenomenon? Are we doomed to accelerate to our demise, or is there something we can do to take the reigns and slow down time?
Scientists call this concept Time Perception. The way we perceive time passing is not constant– there are many factors that influence how ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ we perceive this passing of time. Studies have shown that age is correlated with time perception– the older we are, the faster we perceive time to pass. However, it may not be our biological age that influences our time perception, but rather our habits.
In one experiment, it was found that experiencing awe had an effect of slowing down time perception (as well as boosting well-being). A similar effect occurs when experiencing fear (perhaps not the well-being part, but rather the time dilation). Known as the Oddball Effect, our perception of time slows down the more we experience things that are out of the ordinary.
Think back in your own life to a week when you experienced lots of new things. Perhaps it was your first week of college, or the first week dating your significant other. Compare that week to an ordinary week of going to work, doing your chores, etc. Which week is filled with more memorable experiences? Which week had more “life” squeezed into it?
When we’re young, almost every experience is new in some way. With so much new information to process, the Oddball Effect is engaged all the time. However, as we get older, most of us tend to fall into routines doing similar things every day. Without the odd and unusual, our brains change through Neural Adaptation so that our routines become essentially “invisible” — less new neural connections are made because the brain already has enough connections related to these routines.
In some ways this is depressing news. After all, if our perception of time is based on the uniqueness of our experiences, then a person who is only biologically 50% through their life may be 75% or more through their perceived life. However, this is also great news, because it means we can slow down the march of time– or at-least our perception of it.
Experience awe. Do things that scare you. Seek out new and unusual experiences. These things won’t guarantee that you’ll live a long life, but they will make you feel that you’ve lived one. It turns out that, when it comes to well-being, our perception of reality is more important than reality itself.