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Why does time fly when you’re having fun?

by Dr. Claudia Aguirre

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Have you ever experienced déjà vu? Say you walk into a coffee shop in a new city and suddenly you’re overtaken by a shadowy feeling of familiarity. You take a moment to absorb it and ask yourself or the one you’re with: “Have I been here before?” Originally described by Emile Boirac as a sensation literally meaning “already seen,” countless theories have emerged attempting to explain this common phenomenon. While some believe this to be a sign of their past life, science points to something more banal – a misstep in your brain’s memory encoding procedure.

While there is no single answer to this phenomenon, the most prominent theories suggest a hiccup in your brain’s ability to process information, split attention or retrieve memory. And this hiccup of neuronal activity results in a wrinkle in time. Einstein would agree that time is not a constant, like the speed of light. In his theory of relativity, he suggests that time can run faster or slower depending on your elevation level and how fast you are traveling. (You can stop directing your broomstick at your upstairs neighbor’s; they are technically aging faster than you!). So if time is a rather stretchy fabric, how does our brain keep track of time?

Keeping track of ripples

A most powerful machine, your brain can keep time from the flicker of milliseconds to the of vastness of decades. We needed a mechanism to keep track of time for survival’s sake: to know how long we’d been digging at the insect den (they’re not coming, please stop) or where the voice is coming from (your left ear picked up the sound first, look over there).

The brain has the ability to adjust temporal perception - and nothing warps time better than emotion.

Our central biological clock, located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus, is known to control our sleep/wake cycle; but the way the brain keeps time is still up for debate. Current neuroscientific theories range from calculating the time between different “ripple effects” emitted by neighboring neurons, to calculating between neuronal “pulses,” similar to listening to chords on a piano. Interestingly, music has been shown to highjack our temporal senses – have you ever gotten lost in music? That elevator music is there for a reason. Slow tempo sounds make us linger, while fast tempo music make us more frenzied. In either case, there is no static “tick tock” going on in our heads.

The illusion of time

The brain has the ability to adjust temporal perception – and nothing warps time better than emotion. An interesting study asked participants to free-fall from a nosebleed-inducing height of 101 feet (31m) into a safety net while wearing chronometers. Those asked to keep an eye on the watch for the duration of the dizzying 2.5 seconds could not discern the digits during the fall. When asked how long the fall was, they reported times 33% longer than reality. So time doesn’t slow for us, our memory of it simply stretches a bit.

But doesn’t life seem to be whizzing by instead of slowing down? Slow drivers, slow walkers, slow internet – these are things that drive us up the wall. Patience has diminished with every tweet, gif and notification bombarding our daily lives. Life has sped up but our biology has not. Can we un-warp our perception of time so we’re not overpowered by slowness rage? By focusing on the present, meditation and mindfulness helps us with impatience – but it’s a daily practice. Regaining our power over time may be the only way for us to survive this fast-paced world with calm and ease.

Dr. Claudia Aguirre

Dr. Claudia Aguirre is a neuroscientist and mind-body expert. She earned her doctorate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Southern California (USC), and she recently completed a year-long certificate course on Mindfulness, Yoga and Social Change from Loyola Marymount University. She is also a TED Ed educator, creating various neuroscience-related lessons, which have reached millions worldwide. She researches the latest science around mindfulness and meditation, and communicates these findings to the Headspace audience.