Friday, May 13, 2011

Emotion and the Perception of Time

We have all experienced moments in life when time seems to come to a standstill—a boring lecture, for example—and when time flies. What makes some minutes feel longer than others? A recent piece in Slate's The Explainer tackles this question by providing insights into the relationship between emotion and perception, two ways of knowing that can intersect in fascinating ways.

Using a quote about time from President Obama's recent interview with 60 Minutes—the President described watching the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound as "the longest 40 minutes of my life"—the author of the piece, Jeremy Singer-Vine, summarizes the findings from several psychological studies. These studies suggest, not surprisingly, (1) that time seems to slow down when we experience events that elicit negative emotions, cause confusion, or are novel and (2) that time seems to speed up when we experience joyful or fun events. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's idea of flow, explained nicely by Csikszentmihalyi in a 2008 TED talk, corroborates these findings and reminds us that joyful events can also be challenging ones. 

Singer-Vine then goes on to explain that psychologists have examined both how people feel about events in the moment and how they recall feeling about them after the fact. These studies into "temporal cognition," into the contrast between prospective and retrospective cognitive states, suggest that time feels slower in both prospective and retrospective terms when you're anxious, nervous, or waiting for something to happen. This helps explains why Obama both felt that time slowed down while watching the raid and remembers time having slowed down, too.

1 comment:

  1. The perception of time has always interested me (as well as the real nature of time itself - theories of which have always been in dispute among physicists!). Times when time has apparently slowed down greatly for me personally include moments of danger and moments of great expection (as with the birth of my children). - But in my life, time almost seemed to stop during those delicious summers off from school when I was a kid. I think it had something to do with having no responsibilities whatsoever! - - And in that light - I would guess that for many - time goes more slowly for those who lead simpler lives.