January 29


time keeps on slippin’

Seems reasonable.

Seems reasonable.

A few nights ago I made the mistake of baking lasagna while extremely hungry. Each tick of the timer reverberated inside my skull for what seemed like hours, and the cheese just refused to melt. Later that same night I accidentally stayed up until 2 in the morning absentmindedly watching hours of YouTube videos that weren’t even funny. Objectively, I cooked and watched videos for the same amount of time. So why did cooking feel like it took so much longer than surfing the internet?

This is interesting because it’s activities like watching YouTube that seem to take no time at all, but accumulate over a lifetime to lead to the common feeling that time is slipping through our fingers. So first let’s look at how our brains keep track of time, and then we’ll investigate how we can change our experience of it.

Keeping track of time is important for activities from hard-boiling an egg to recalling exactly when we sent that email to our boss. Since the objective TIME our brains measure always moves forward (actually not trivial) at a (mostly) constant pace, keeping track of it should be easy, right? But, it gets complicated. The variety of things we use time for means the brain keeps track of lengths from milliseconds to decades. These different estimations occur in different brain circuits that span the brain.

I am using one of these circuits right now to type, which involves coordinating precisely when each finger moves. These fast movements depend on regions like the cerebellum, cortex and basal ganglia, which also work together to track durations of time in the milliseconds-seconds range (1,4).


This one circuit for short lengths of time spans the brain. This diagram would be super complicated if I included every time estimation circuit. Note: I didn’t talk about the Thalamus (green), but it’s important for almost everything and will be on the quiz. From (13)

At the same time, a circuit crucial for memory that includes the hippocampus and several nearby regions tracks the duration of longer events and the time between important events (2,3). For example, I can usually remember that I showered both today and yesterday even though I follow the same shower routine. It’s thanks to my hippocampus that I can remember identical events only distinguishable by when they happened.

These are just two examples; there are other circuits that have a hand in tracking certain lengths of time in certain situations. So, great, a bunch of brain areas keep track of different lengths of time, but how can use this knowledge to change our experience of time? Can we slow it down?

Free-falling for science! From (13)

Free-falling for science! From (14)

The feeling that time speeds up as we get older is extremely common, and can even be a source of anxiety.  Many studies have shown that older adults underestimate durations of time, corroborating this common illusion (7). Scientists don’t totally agree on why this happens (surprise!), but it probably has to do with older brains devoting fewer “resources” to processing the world around them. Theoretically, if the brain devotes fewer resources to processing an event our memory of the event is less rich. In turn, these sparse memories make events seem shorter in retrospect.

This resource theory also applies to life-threatening events, including an experiment where participants estimated how long they were in free-fall. Really. The authors of the study suggested our brains devote more resources to processing life threatening events, which is why these events seem to last longer than they do (8).

So how can we make our brains devote more processing resources? One way is by paying attention, which slows our perception of all different lengths of time (1). Paying attention can lead to the following temporal illusion:

1) Get a watch or clock with a silent second-hand or digital display

2) Look at something else, then quickly shift your gaze to the face of the clock

3) Repeat until it works

This is called the stopped clock illusion. The rapid shift of attention to the clock makes time seem to stand still for that first moment.

But paying attention to everything all the time is taxing. So is there anything else we can do?

Another neuroscientist endorsed time slowing strategy is to break a few habits and do new things. Our brains devote fewer resources to processing things it’s been exposed to over and over again. This repeated exposure tends to happen as we get older; every day that we get in the same car to drive the same route to go to the same job our brains adapt slightly more to our routine. In the midst of this same-old, an unexpected event seems to last longer than it really does, as evidenced by the oddball effect. This is an excuse to eat at that new restaurant or take a vacation somewhere new, do it!

Attending to the present moment can lead to richer experiences and slow the slip of time. This is why time barely budged while I obsessively watched cheese melt on my lasagna, but flew when I absentmindedly watched YouTube videos (conversely, to make cheese melt or paint dry faster, be as inattentive as possible). These richer experiences lead to richer memories, making events seem longer in retrospect (5). Sprinkle some novel activities in there, and instead of being alarmed at how much time has passed we’ll look back and think “Woah, that was only a week/year/decade ago? Seems like longer.”

PS: some interesting but not recommended time slowing methods

Stimulant drugs and being scared or angry can also slow time, but are obviously unsustainable strategies (9,10,11,12). Probably the least effective and most expensive time-slowing method is moving really really (like light-speed) fast.  Although this won’t slow down how we experience time (re: Interstellar), so probably not worth it.


  1. Coull, J.T., Vidal, F., Nazarian, B., & Macar, F. (2004). Functional anatomy of the attentional modulation of time estimation. Science, 303(5663), 1506-1508.
  2. Kraus, B.J., Robinson II, R. ., White, J.A., Eichenbaum, H., & Hasselmo, M. E. (2013). Hippocampal “time cells”: time versus path integration. Neuron, 78(6), 1090-1101.
  3. MacDonald, C.J., Lepage, K.Q., Eden, U.T., & Eichenbaum, H. (2011). Hippocampal “time cells” bridge the gap in memory for discontiguous events. Neuron, 71(4), 737-749.
  4. Ivry, R.B., & Spencer, R. (2004). The neural representation of time. Current opinion in neurobiology, 14(2), 225-232.
  5. Kramer, R.S., Weger, U.W., & Sharma, D. (2013). The effect of mindfulness meditation on time perception. Consciousness and cognition, 22(3), 846-852.
  6. Coull, J.T., Vidal, F., Nazarian, B., & Macar, F. (2004). Functional anatomy of the attentional modulation of time estimation. Science, 303(5663), 1506-1508.
  7. Block, R.A., Zakay, D., & Hancock, P. A. (1998). Human aging and duration judgments: A meta-analytic review. Psychology and aging, 13(4), 584.
  8. Stetson C, Fiesta M.P., Eagleman D..M (2007). “Does time really slow down during a frightening event?”. PLoS ONE 2 (12): e1295. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001295. PMC 2110887. PMID 18074019.
  9. Wittmann M, Leland DS, Churan J, Paulus MP (October 2007). “Impaired time perception and motor timing in stimulant-dependent subjects”. Drug Alcohol Depend 90 (2–3): 183–92. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2007.03.005. PMC 1997301. PMID 17434690.
  10. Cheng RK, MacDonald CJ, Meck WH (September 2006). “Differential effects of cocaine and ketamine on time estimation: implications for neurobiological models of interval timing”. Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav. 85 (1): 114–22. doi:10.1016/j.pbb.2006.07.019. PMID 16920182.
  11. Droit-Volet S, Fayolle SL, Gil S (2011). “Emotion and time perception: effects of film-induced mood”. Front Integr Neurosci 5: 33. doi:10.3389/fnint.2011.00033. PMC 3152725. PMID 21886610
  12. Gil, S., Niedenthal, P. M., & Droit-Volet, S. (2007). Anger and time perception in children. Emotion, 7(1), 219.


13. http://brainmind.com/BrainLecture7.html

14. http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-03/how-time-flies