The time flies paradox

Photo by Flickr user NathanFromDeVryEET. Click for sourceTime flies when you’re having fun, but why? It’s curious if you think about it. Someone whose visual perception was affected by enjoyment would seem rather unusual but the fact that our ability to judge time changes dramatically when we enjoy ourselves seems perfectly unremarkable.

A recent article in the scientific journal Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society attempts to answer exactly this question by reviewing the evidence for the curious link between emotion and time perception.

One of the greatest paradoxes in the field of time psychology is the time‚Äìemotion paradox. Over the last few decades, an increasing volume of data has been identified demonstrating the accuracy with which humans are able to estimate time. Confronted with this amazing ability, psychologists have supposed that humans, as other animals, possess a specific mechanism that allows them to measure time…

However, under the influence of emotions, humans can be extremely inaccurate in their time judgements (Droit-Volet & Meck 2007). For example, the passage of time seems to vary depending on whether the subject is in an unpleasant or pleasant context. It drags when being criticized by the boss but flies by when discussing with our friends. That is the time–emotion paradox: why given that we possess a sophisticated time measurement mechanism, are we so inaccurate in our temporal judgements when experiencing emotions?

The article is full of studies that found surprising ways in which our time perception is distorted: by the emotional expression on other people’s faces or by the age of people we meet (older people slow time, younger people quicken it).

Link to scientific article on the time-emotion paradox.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

5 thoughts on “The time flies paradox”

  1. Im sure there is elaborate reasoning for all the variables involved but aren’t we over thinking this? A watched pot never boils, time flies when your having fun. These two sayings go hand in hand. When we are not focusing on something directly we lose track of it, or at least cannot keep track as accurately as we believe.

  2. Personally I don’t think so. From those two sayings you posted, the question is what physiological / psychological components are at play that produce two different perceptions of time due to the “actions” (boring = watching the pot, fun = well… fun) we are performing? To further that, how do we even perceive the passage of time? Could this give an insight into internal time keeping? If we discover the secrets of this, will having a watch even be necessary any more?
    So maybe this isn’t such a pointless academic exercise after all.

  3. Hey Vaughan,
    I know you’re not keen on the overly simple, Dopamine = Reward hypothesis, but Googling “Cocaine affect time perception” leads to a whole bunch of papers on the effect of stimulants on time perception.
    Curiously, many of the papers seem to suggest that stimulants increase timing precision in participants, which seems odd, as you might think that something that “speeds people up” in a crude sense might slow their perception of time as they might be experiencing more within a given period of real time (say 1 minute). Of course its more complex than just increasing our brain’s clock speed though.
    My theory is that time perception when bored is all about procrastination and clock watching. When we don’t want something to be happening we are very aware of the passage of time, hence it seems longer. Perhaps when happy, or on stimulants, we tend to flow more easily, without dreading a particular experience.

  4. Although time flies like an arrow… fruit flies like a banana.
    Humour aside, Speed is distance divided by time… is our perception of speed altered as well?
    We often judge how big a city is by how long it takes to move through. Is our perception of size altered?

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