Writing Sample: Why Your Perception of Time Can Change

Julia Wilde
Apr 23 · Unlisted

Cold Open

Time flies when you’re having fun! But time is a constant right? So, why does it feel like it goes at different speeds?

[DNews Open]

Hey guys Julia here for the last time :’(


Fascinating research into time reveals just our fluid our sense of time really is. Ever been in a car accident and it seemed to unfold in slow motion? Well a study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that we feel like time slows down when an object is coming toward us and time speeds up when it’s not moving or moving away from us. The researchers believe this has to do with threat perception. Parts of your brain fire that handle how we think about ourselves in relation to what’s going on around us. So when something comes towards us, we need to plan what to do. If something moves away from us, that might makes us relax, as it’s no longer a threat. Time slowing down or speeding up is really all in your head.

Another study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences found that time slows down if the stimulus is novel. The researchers think this could be because you’re taking in more information at once than you normally do. So if something new is heading right towards you, time might feel like it slows wayyyy down.

And you don’t have to wait for a life threatening situation to experience time slowing down. One study published in the journal PLOS one found that purposely falling 15 stories does the trick. The researchers had test subjects bungee jump 15 stories and estimate how long they had been falling for. The terrified participants said they fell for about 4 seconds when really it was only 2.5. And to test the idea that the slowing of time perception happens because our brain is taking in more information — like a slower computer churning through data — the researchers gave the participants watches that flashed numbers faster than they’d be able to read under normal circumstances… They figured, if they were sucking in all this info, then they would read the numbers on the watch face, but as the participants fell, they still couldn’t do it. So time didn’t reeeaaallly slow down for them. It seemed slower in retrospect because of the emotional charge of the situation.

But time seems to speed up too. Most of the time shifting we experience happens when we get older. We settle into routines and every day just becomes a familiar blur of work and stress. Some researchers believe time picks up speed as we age because each moment becomes a smaller percentage of our lives. When we’re 10, a year is a tenth of our lives, when we’re thirty, it’s only 1/30th. This ‘proportional’ theory, as it’s called, was put forth in 1877 by Paul Janet.

But it doesn’t explain everything. Studies like one published in the journal Acta Psychologica found that time doesn’t actually speed up for older people. When they are asked out count off a minute, they don’t do it any faster than a younger person. Or when asked about how long the past month felt to them, there wasn’t much difference between people of different ages. So our perception doesn’t change as we get older. Our memory of time does.

The researchers proposed that novel experiences are the most memorable and as we get older, we have fewer novel experiences. They also point to a phenomenon called ‘forward telescoping’. This where you think something memorable feels like it happened only yesterday, when really it was TWENTY years ago, like when Toy Story hit theaters… (FREAK OUT). Basically memorable events are clearer in our memories than less memorable ones, so we wrongfully assume they happened more recently. Once you realize your error, man do you feel old.

Speaking of time flying by. It seems like just yesterday I joined DNews for the first time. But really it was over a year ago! But now it’s time to say goodbye. While I’m saying goodbye to DNews, I’ll still be around on the internet. Come find me on my Tumblr, That’s So Science and on twitter @julia_sci. Thank you so much for being the best fans and for all your thoughtful comments!

Got any other science questions for the DNews team? Thanks for watching DNews. I’ll see you


Julia Wilde

Written by

actor/writer/host. Writing about science, LGBT, mental health or cats