Why time sometimes drags and sometimes flies

Most hikers will probably have experienced at one time or another that the outward trek seems to take forever. And yet the walk back feels far shorter. Why should this be the case – why do we have a different perception of one and the same distance? Isabell Winkler from the Institute of Psychology at Chemnitz University of Technology is keen to explore this phenomenon and discover why our perception of time is so individual.

A psychologist with a PhD under her belt, Winkler believes that our ability to perceive time at all is congenital. This is because animals and young children also notice differences in the duration of stimulus. Winkler reports about colleagues who have successfully trained rats to perceive specific periods of time. Several areas in the cerebrum are responsible for our sense of time – the amygdala, hypothalamus and motor cortex. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reveals that they are interconnected.

A matter of perception

Why time sometimes drags and sometimes flies
Time is difficult to grasp and even more difficult to depict.

Which factors influence our perception of time? "Emotions, for example", says Isabell Winkler. We tend to lose track of time when we experience great joy or if we are in love. By contrast, time seems to pass particularly slowly when we are forced to wait but have no means of distracting or occupying ourselves. If we feel that we are wasting our time or if we are bored, we focus more on the passing of time and are better able to judge how long we have been waiting. Subjectively, time elapses more quickly when we are stressed, on the other hand. Hectic work days stretch into weeks and months that appear to "fly by". As the psychologist explains, one way to combat this is by trying to control one's stress levels, for example through mindfulness or meditation. Sometimes it may also make sense to break with one's usual routine.

But why does it seem as if the first days of a holiday pass slowly and the last few race by? Because we tend to take more conscious note of things that we experience for the first time. Our first hours lying in the sun on the beach will stick in our minds for longer than a beach day experienced after a week of holidaying by the sea. That is also one reason why children and teenagers, who are still experiencing many things for the first time, differ from adults in the way they perceive time.

Smartphones accelerate the pace of life

It is not only our subjective perception of the passing of time that differs, but also our perception of what constitutes the right point in time. One important factor that determines whether a person will arrive punctually for an appointment is motivation, says Winkler. As a rule, we turn up precisely on time when attending a job interview. If we are meeting a friend, however, it seems not to matter so much if we are a few minutes late. According to Winkler, who studies personality traits: "Extroverts often arrive a bit late." The Chemnitz-based researcher can only guess at the extent to which digitisation influences our perception of time, but believes that smartphones, which almost all of us have in our pockets nowadays, have the potential to distract us more. "And they leave us with hardly any idle time that forces us to slow down." Perhaps we would enjoy the passing of time more if we were bored a little more often.

Institute of Psychology at Chemnitz University of Technology

The Institute of Psychology at Chemnitz University of Technology has nine professorships and focuses on two main fields of research: Human Factors, and Clinical Psychology and Health. Besides offering its own bachelor and master degree programmes, the institute is also involved in interdisciplinary courses, such as a master's degree in Public Health. There are numerous interdisciplinary overlaps with subjects like engineering and economics.

www.tu-chemnitz.de > Institute of Psychology