Can the perceived time be slowed down

Sometimes time flies by, sometimes slowly - why?

Questioner: Theo W. from Stuttgart

Released: October 31, 2011

A minute at the dentist's can take a long time, and an evening with friends goes by in a flash. Do we not have an objective sense of time?

The answer from the editors is:

Heiko Hecht, Department of General Experimental Psychology, University of Mainz: Conscious perception of time is not a direct perception of external circumstances, like a green bird with your eyes and the sound of music with your ears. There is no single organ for the perception of time. Rather, the sense of time is an individual construct from the emotional evaluation of what is happening - completely independent of the time according to a clock, which can actually pass much faster or slower.

Waiting five minutes at the bus stop in winter can seem like an eternity because the cold is excruciating. If you later sit with a friend in a warm restaurant, three or four hours go by in an instant. Moments that are filled with particularly positive emotions seem to fly by. Conversely, situations that are perceived negatively, such as monotonous work, tend to be perceived as tedious.

The perception of time goes back to a complex, unconscious process in which preferences, emotions and arousal are decisive. The amygdala is particularly involved here. The feeling for time thus arises from the intensity and personal assessment of an experienced moment. Another essential part is memory. In retrospect, the sense of time is interestingly turned into exactly the opposite: Intense experiences that seem to be racing at the moment - such as a nice vacation - appear in retrospect to be extended. The time was used there much more intensively. We expand this abundance of experiences and emotions afterwards because we would have loved to have stayed longer. On the other hand, negative or strenuous experiences are later perceived as being shorter in time.

The perception of the passage of time is therefore also a memory performance - in the form of a positive transfiguration of the past. If, in retrospect, we found the past period of adversity to be just as long, we would probably suffer a lot more from it. I suspect that no woman would want to have a second child if she remembered the first birth as extensively and intensely as she actually did. This is an excellent protective mechanism of the body, which ensures the motivation to want to go on living despite unpleasant events.

For a long time, people tried to find a clock in the brain - for example, through experiments in dark rock cellars, where people could determine their own daily routine. Today, however, we know that many biological processes, such as hormone production in the pituitary gland, synchronize surprisingly well with the rhythm of the sun. Recent research has also come to the conclusion that there is not just one clock in people, but many different processes in which precise time perception is more or less important. My vacation memories are subject to completely different laws than my sense of time when cycling. If I shift my weight on the bike a hundredth of a second too late, I fall down - the internal clock works very well here. On vacation, on the other hand, it is not a question of precise actions, but of coping well with the past and remembering who is worth spending time with.

Recorded by Leonie Seng