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10 Weird Things That Warp Your Sense of Time

by Jana Louise Smit
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

The ticking of the clock may seem constant, but the human mind is easily influenced. Under certain conditions, time can speed up, slow down, or vanish altogether. Recent studies took a deep dive into the strange pool that is “time,” and the results were fascinating.

From the bizarre reason why time flies for older adults to how your native tongue can affect the speed of the hour, here are 10 reasons why you’ll never look at time the same again.

Related: 10 Weird Ways to Spend Eternity

10 The Slow Outdoors

Mental Health Benefits of Getting Outside

A strange thing happens when busy city-dwellers step into nature. Time seems to change and slow down. Hours seem longer, and a weekend in the great outdoors somehow feels “more” than two days back at the office. Indeed, research has shown that this effect is so profound that when people walk the same distance—for instance, first in an urban setting and then in nature—they perceive the outdoor walk to be longer.

But why do beaches and forests give us a sense of time abundance? The relaxing effects of nature might be responsible. Emotions play a role in how time is perceived, and when someone feels less anxious while on a hike, time is distorted, and the hours feel longer.

Interestingly, the magic of green spaces is not limited to prolonging the present. It also affects how people perceive the past and future. Spending time in the favorite corner of one’s garden or enjoying a hiking trail makes the brain less inclined to peruse the past and focus more on what’s to come.[1]

9 Fun and Boredom

Why Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

Imagine you purchase a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of tiny pieces. At first, you love the challenge, and the first few hours fly by. But the jigsaw becomes boring after a few days or weeks, perhaps even months. Spending half an hour piecing together the picture’s blue sky feels like an eternity.

Researchers have long been curious about why fun shortens our perception of time while boredom can slow time (sometimes to a mind-numbing degree!). In 2019, a Columbia University neuroscientist, Dr. Michael Shadlen, provided a fascinating explanation. Apparently, thoughts have horizons, and the brain uses them to determine the duration of time.

Here’s how it works. When reading a book, the “horizons” sit at the end of every syllable, word, sentence, and page. Time moves faster or slower depending on how we anticipate these horizons. When a reader is engrossed, the brain anticipates both close and distant horizons, like the words and the end of the story. This “bigger picture” makes time fly by. A boring book limits the brain to closer horizons, such as the end of each sentence. Since these horizons aren’t forming a whole, time slows to a crawl.[2]

8 Meditation Creates More Time

The Science Behind Mindfulness Meditation

The benefits of meditation are well-known. It reduces stress, improves sleep, helps you cope during difficult times, and promotes happiness. However, in 2019, researchers discovered that meditation can also give us more time. Fair enough, there’s nothing mystical about it. Instead, this ancient art “creates” more hours by changing how practitioners interact with life.

The study focused on a branch of practice called mindfulness meditation. This form uses focused awareness to stay in the present. The volunteers were asked to meditate for two sessions, each 15 minutes long. During the second session, the participants were required to judge the length of segments, each lasting between 15 seconds and six minutes.

They consistently underestimated or overestimated the passage of time. For the shorter segments, many thought less time had passed. Interestingly, they also believed more time had passed with the longer segments than actually had. This suggests that time can be experienced as fuller, longer, and richer, purely by how attentive a person chooses to be with their day.[2]

7 Drugs Warp Time

Your Brain On Salvia

Most recreational drug users view the drugs’ ability to distort time as a pleasurable aspect. But the fact that drugs mess with time perception is old news. However, it’s still interesting to learn how substances achieve this feat and what “time-traveling” effects certain drugs can have on the human mind.

Ecstasy and cocaine speed up time. Ironically, they allow users to party for longer, but the night flies by too quickly. Those who love the devil’s lettuce already know that cannabis can make minutes feel like hours and evenings are never-ending. Other types of drugs, like psychedelics, can cause users to have no sense of time.

But how do drugs hijack one’s sense of time? First, they alter the chemical messages in the brain. Stimulants cause increased mental function, thus speeding up time. Depressants do the opposite by decreasing activity across the relevant areas of the brain. Drugs also affect emotions and behavior, both of which have been established to regulate our experience of time.[4]

6 The Gaze of Another Person

Can You Feel a Stare? (EXPERIMENT)

Locking eyes with someone can trigger a host of emotions. An angry stare can intimidate, while a lover’s glance can silently communicate affection. In 2021, a study discovered that eyeballing someone also has the power to mess with their sense of time.

The University of Geneva in Switzerland asked volunteers to look at two types of clips. The first showed strangers suddenly looking at the camera with an intense gaze. The second batch also showed strangers, but this time, the segments began with a brief gaze before the person looked away. The students had to guess whether the clips felt long or short.

In reality, the clips lasted between 986 milliseconds and 1.5 seconds. The clips where strangers stared before looking away didn’t warp the volunteers’ sense of time. However, the intense stares caused them to believe that the duration of the eye contact was shorter than it really was.[5]

5 The Heart Connection

How the heart can change our perception of time

The brain is a great timekeeper. It always follows the passage of time, even when a person is not specifically focusing on it. In 2023, researchers found that the brain wasn’t the only organ in the human body that tracks the clock. Remarkably, the heart is also involved, and it plays a big role in how we keep time on a subconscious level.

Cornell University roped in 45 students with great hearing and no history of heart disease. They were hooked up to electrocardiograms to monitor their hearts while listening to beeps from 80 to 180 milliseconds long. The students had to guess if each tone was shorter or longer than the previous one.

When the students experienced a shorter heartbeat, they perceived tones to be longer. A longer heartbeat preceded reports of shorter tones. This showed that the heart’s rhythm influences how the brain perceives time, even when faced with periods (the tones) almost too brief for conscious feelings or thoughts.[6]

4 Quitting Smoking Impairs Time Awareness

What Happens When You Stop Smoking?

Putting down that pack of cigarettes comes with a price. Withdrawal symptoms can include irritation, restlessness, struggle to focus or sleep, increased food cravings, and anxiety and depression. In 2003, researchers from Penn State University unearthed another lesser-known symptom of quitting: an inability to tell the passage of time.

The study asked non-smokers to guess how much time has elapsed during a test. A researcher would say “start” and, after a while, “stop.” All tests lasted 45 seconds but only the non-smokers and active smokers guessed the correct passage of time.

A group of smokers who went without nicotine for 24 hours were put through the same test. Incredibly, they overestimated the 45 seconds to be 50% longer. The researchers concluded that this inability to guess how long something takes could be why, when people quit, they show a decline in performance at work and in their personal lives.[7]

3 Film Editing

Why our brains don’t explode at film cuts | Strange Continuity

This might sound bizarre, but how filmmakers edit their work can influence how audiences experience time. This was highlighted in 2023 when a study showed participants movie clips polished with either continuity or discontinuity editing.

Continuity editing is where shots change but keep the viewer in the same “situation.” For example, one shot shows a couple sitting at a restaurant table, while the next shot shows the waiter bringing their food. Discontinuity editing takes the viewer someplace new: one shot shows a couple sitting at a table, but the next shows a dog running on the beach.

The volunteers watched clips edited in both forms and clips that contained no cuts, all varying only slightly in length. Even though each excerpt ran for nearly the same duration, the participants believed that clips with continuity editing lasted longer.

Researchers believe this sense of prolonged time might be due to the brain having to figure out that even though the camera changed angles, it’s still the same “place and story.” Discontinuity cuts clearly move to a new place and story, relieving the brain of extra cognitive processing.[8]

2 A Person’s Native Language

How Bilingual Brains Perceive Time Differently

Talking seems like the last thing that influences time. However, a joint study performed by two universities from South Africa and the UK proved that language can allow someone to correctly guess the passage of time or miss the mark. In a nutshell, it’s all about how native speakers talk about time.

The 2017 study showed Spanish and Swedish speakers a series of animated lines that grew longer but not always to the same length. Unbeknownst to the volunteers, the growing pace of all the lines lasted only three seconds.

Researchers suspected the Swedes might fail to catch on to the three-second trick, mainly because they speak about time in terms of distance (as in, a “short” break). To a Swedish mind, a longer line needs more time to complete than a shorter one. Sure enough, this group struggled to guess the correct times. The Spaniards, who speak in terms of volume (a “small” break), quickly grasped that all the animations lasted three seconds.[9]

1 Why Time Flies for Older Adults

Why Life Seems to Speed Up as We Age

For children, a summer vacation can feel like a lifetime. For adults, however, such slow times are mostly a distant memory. The older we get, the faster the years fly by. Adults have more responsibilities, but research has shown that, while these things take up time, they’re not responsible for the phenomenon where older folks feel like every year is speeding up.

Two of the most popular theories blame internal biological clocks that alter with age or that older people experience fewer new things and thus do not feel the drawn-out experience when absorbing a lot of new information (for example, think of the slow-motion effect right before an accident).

However, neither theory explains why time keeps shortening. Researchers noticed this acceleration’s almost mathematical nature, and they arrived at a bizarre conclusion. Our brains view time as a proportion of the years we have already lived but in a strange way. It involves comparing the doubling of one’s age and assigning such periods the same value.

In simpler terms, the years between ages 5 and 10, and 40 and 80, feel the same. Since four decades have passed in the last case and just five in the first, it’s easy to see why older people experience “faster” years.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen
Jana Louise Smit

Jana earns her beans as a freelance writer and author. She wrote one book on a dare and hundreds of articles. Jana loves hunting down bizarre facts of science, nature and the human mind.

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