How to Slow Down Time
Written by: Denise John, PhD
Published on: August 4, 2022
Photo courtesy of Brian Chorski
Why do some summer months fly by, while February always seems to drag along at the most brutal pace? Why do our memories of certain weeks feel longer than others? Why do the best vacations make time feel like it’s measured differently than the time we experience back home?
Cognitive neuroscientist Martin Wiener, PhD, who studies how our brains perceive time and space, explains that while we experience time as a continuum—something linear, with a beginning, middle, and end—we don’t always experience time at the same rate. Depending on what we’re focused on or the physical space we’re in or the familiarity of the experience, it feels sped up in some moments and slowed down in others.
Here are the key takeaways from our conversation with Wiener, in which we asked him to break down the most fundamental (and surprising) ways our brains distort time.
1. Focusing on time slows it down. If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic, had a flight delay, or even dared to watch a pot of water boil, you’ve experienced the feeling of time dragging. Research suggests that the more you focus on time, the slower it seems to pass, which is usually the case when we’re bored or doing something we’d rather not be doing.
2. Distracting yourself from time speeds it up. “The more you’re distracted from time, the faster it seems to go by because you’re not focused on how much time is going by,” Wiener says.
3. Memories distort time. When you’re looking back in time, you perceive time differently. “When you recall a memory when lots of things happened, even though it may have felt like it went by quickly, when you look back on it, you feel like it lasted longer than you originally experienced it,” Wiener says. It’s like that vacation that flew by, but when you remember it, it seems to have lasted longer, almost as if the memory expands.
The opposite is true when it comes to memories of times when nothing much happened, like waiting in traffic or on a plane. When you look back on those experiences, you’ll probably feel like they were relatively short.
4. Dopamine may affect time. Scientists don’t really understand how the brain processes time yet, but emerging research shows that dopamine, the neurotransmitter that’s stimulated when we feel pleasure and reward, may play a role. “Anything that increases dopamine tends to speed up our sense of time,” Wiener says. “Whereas things that reduce dopamine slow down our sense of time.”
5. Space affects how we perceive time. “The bigger the space, the slower time seems to pass,” says Wiener. This applies to the space you’re in or the space (or distance) you travel. Have you ever been tempted to take back roads to work because your route has traffic, even though the GPS says the route with traffic will get you there the fastest? The lack of movement in space (and the focus on time) makes the time in traffic feel like it’s moving slower. By taking the longer route, you can feel that less time has passed than it would if you’d taken a shorter route with traffic. Similarly, how we move our bodies in space also changes our perception of time—time can feel like it’s moving faster if you’re dancing or going for a run compared to sitting still.
6. Familiarity expands space and contracts time. The more familiar you are with something, like a route to work or the walk to your favorite café, the shorter amount of time it seems to take to get there, but the longer the distance it seems to take.
“The first time you take a route, it might seem like it takes a long time but that it wasn’t that far away, in terms of distance,” Wiener says. “After you repeatedly take this route and become more familiar with it, eventually the amount of time it takes will seem to be less, but the distance to get there will seem longer.” You can think about that on your next coffee run.
Researchers are still uncovering how time is processed in the brain—what brain regions are activated, what mechanisms are required, which neurotransmitters and hormones are involved, and more. But our perception of time is just that: our perception. Playing around with some of these time-shifting ideas may help you find ways to speed up time in the dullest moments—and slow it down when you want a moment to last.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.