Why time flies

Dr Who may have been a Time Lord, a master of mind, space and time, but did he ever answer the really burning issue: why does time drag when you are in a boring meeting but fly by when you are at a wonderful party with friends? How could the good Doctor navigate time without bothering to answer this fundamental conundrum of existence? Thankfully, some researchers have stepped in and we now have an answer.

As background to the new study it helps to understand a phenomenon dubbed “approach motivation”. It is well known that people do experience time as passing more quickly when they are felling positive and experience time as passing more slowly when they experience a negative state. The thing is, not all positive states are the same.

Feelings of contentment and serenity for instance are not high in “approach motivation” and they don’t tend to make time feel like it is flying. Feelings of desire and excitement however, do make time pass quickly because they are high in approach motivation which means they make people want to achieve something. These researchers theorised that it is approach motivation that makes time seem to pass quickly.

The first experiment conducted by these researchers involved people being shown pictures for either a short time (400 milliseconds) or a longer time (1600 milliseconds). The pictures were either neutral (geometric shapes), positive but low in approach motivation (flowers), or high in approach motivation (delicious desserts). The subjects were asked to estimate whether the pictures had been shown for a short or long time.

The neutral objects and those low in approach motivation were estimated as having been shown for longer periods than the high approach motivation images. So high levels of approach motivation made time seem to pass more quickly.

Also, if the subjects had eaten recently the pictures were judged as having appeared for a longer time, presumably because desire was less.

In a second study it was found that people experienced images of desserts as being shown for a shorter time when they had an expectation of eating those desserts later. So the perception of time passing quickly results from a desire to approach or pursue something, not from just from a general positive feeling or arousal. When your memory and attention shut out unrelated thoughts and feelings, then time seems to pass more quickly. This is particularly so when your motivation centres around important evolutionary goals like water, food, and companionship.

Positive emotions do make time fly but only if you are excited or actively pursuing something that you desire. There are lots of applications for this but one option you know that have a boring monthly meeting to sit through could be to starve yourself before hand and then imagine a delicious snack during the meeting that you will allow yourself to have afterwards. You might just accelerate time, but no guarantees, there are some meetings that even Time Lords can’t speed up.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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