When does the brain begin to perceive time?

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Dr. Isabell Winkler researches people's subjective perception of time - with amazing results - MDR article available

    Who doesn’t know that: When we wait, time doesn’t seem to go by, but when we spend a nice holiday, time seems to go by at breakneck speed. How can that be? Dr. Isabell Winkler, Research Associate at the Professorship for Research Methodology and Evaluation at the Institute for Psychology at Chemnitz University of Technology, is investigating these questions in her current research project. It examines the subjective perception of time. The main aim of her study is to examine the factors influencing our perception of time. With their study, well-known phenomena can be explained; For example, why the way back seems to be shorter than the way there or why time seems to pass faster the older you get.

    Innate sense of time

    Neuropsychological research shows that there are several areas in the brain that are networked via loop systems and that are responsible for the perception of time, ”explains Isabell Winkler. “Animals and small children can also perceive differences in the duration of stimuli. It can therefore be assumed that the perception of time is innate. However, what a long or short duration means must be learned, such as counting or reading the clock. "

    Factors of the subjective sense of time

    There are factors that influence the perception of time and thus can also falsify it. For example, distraction, emotional activation or physical exertion. Winkler: “When people have to wait without being able to distract themselves, the time usually seems quite long to them. Often these estimates are more accurate because you concentrate on the time that passes and you can perceive it better. If you distract yourself - for example through the Internet, watching videos or listening to music - time seems to pass faster. ”The actual duration would tend to be underestimated, says Winkler. Particularly if, in retrospect, judgments are to be made over long periods of time that have already passed, additional factors are added. It is important, for example, which events are remembered or how routine the actions were.

    Why time flies so quickly as an adult

    Routines of action are also an important clue to the question of why time seems to pass much more slowly as a child than in adulthood. On the basis of this phenomenon, the research assistant examined, among other things, the influencing factors of time perception. “In the research literature there are a number of theories about this age effect, that is, the fact that time passes faster with increasing age. But the results of the respective studies were inconclusive and even somewhat paradoxical, ”said Winkler. “The effect only occurred when the speed of the passage of time was assessed for past periods of life. As a rule, however, no difference was found when the time perception in the current period of life was compared between participants of different age groups. ”So it is not an actual difference in perception that depends on age, but a memory phenomenon or a memory effect. The age effect of the perception of time arises from the comparison of the reconstructed perception of time between the different periods of a person's life. In order to resolve this contradiction in the results, the working group set two goals: On the one hand, they checked whether a context of comparison was necessary for the age effect to occur, i.e. a comparison of the perception of time in the present with the perception in earlier periods of life. On the other hand, they pursued the goal of investigating possible causes for the age effect. For this purpose, more than 500 people between the ages of 20 and 80 were asked about their perception of time in the current and previous periods of life. The result: Consistent with earlier results, a clear age effect was achieved when the participants retrospectively compared different periods of life.

    Time wasters: action routines

    Time researcher Winkler explains the effect: “Important explanatory factors for this are the increasing routines of action in the course of life and the associated experience of fewer and fewer life events that one experiences for the first time. We retrospectively reconstruct the duration of time spans on the basis of remembered events in a past time period. The more different events are remembered, the longer a period of time is estimated. Increasing routines lead to less intensive and less consciously experienced events or actions. This means that fewer different events or elements of an action are remembered in the same period of time and the duration is perceived as shorter. ”In retrospect, therefore, the impression arises that time must have passed faster, although it doesn't have to feel that way in the corresponding situation. Children, for example, naturally experience more things for the first time and are therefore likely to perceive them more intensely and in greater detail. Because of this, what has been experienced can be remembered better and more multifaceted, which means that a longer period of time is reconstructed and that time is therefore experienced as lasting longer.

    Stress and time pressure accelerate the sense of time

    Stress and time pressure in adulthood would also have the effect that actions and events can be experienced less consciously, with a lot of detail and thus less mindfully. Winkler: “Usually several things have to be done at the same time and you can't take the time to concentrate on the details. In retrospect, fewer elements of the experience are usually remembered and the time span is perceived as shorter. ”According to this, stress and pressure make time pass more quickly in retrospect. Even in the situation in which this stress was felt, the passage of time would be experienced as more expeditious, since a person's perception in stressful situations would be greatly distracted by time.

    Time perception and digitization: presumably connected

    Winkler could not say exactly whether the perception of time has changed due to digitization and the associated constant availability. But she suspects it. “With digitization, there are potentially more distractions and, in return, hardly any waiting times that force you to slow down and be mindful.” Time can therefore be experienced as passing more quickly, both in relation to the future and the past. A trend towards reflected countermeasures can already be seen. For example in the form of mindfulness courses or meditation. In order to get the "best" out of your time, Isabell Winkler advises you to spend your time more carefully. "Whenever everyday life allows, you could break routines and create positive, lasting memories." Above all, it is helpful to consciously try out new things for the first time.

    What to do with boring lectures

    But what can be done if the time in the lecture does not want to pass by? Winkler: “From a hedonistic point of view, one could speed up the time in boring lectures by distracting oneself. However, it makes more sense to actively participate. So ask questions or take notes. If all of that doesn't help, you can concentrate on yourself and your surroundings and try to experience everything mindfully, that is, your own body, your breath or the other listeners and the lecturer. ”Everyone will know what influence this has on their subjective perception of time experience for yourself.

    Background: The difficulty of comparative studies

    Comparative studies on the effects of increasing global digitalization on the subjective perception of time are hardly possible, the expert knows. Because the influence of digitization is difficult to realistically manipulate in everyday life. People would have to be brought into situations with high and low digitization by chance in order to be able to compare the influence on the perception of time. However, this type of manipulation would hardly be feasible in the laboratory, since digitization affects all areas of a person's life over a very long period of time. If people were to be examined who voluntarily live in a hardly digitized world, the question would remain whether these people have special characteristics, which in turn means that they cannot be compared with other people. IsabellWinkler suspects that many people notice a possible connection between advancing digitization and the perception of time and act against it.

    Multimedia: A video report with a classification by Dr. Isabell Winkler is available at MDR Wissen.

    (Author: Nina Schreyer)

    Matthias Fejes
    20.07.2018

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