The Mysteries of Time

“Time passing slowly is an indirect sign that all is not well”

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March 2024

“Time passing slowly is an indirect sign that all is not well”

Our perception of time varies but not necessarily for the reasons we may expect. Sylvie Droit-Volet, professor at Université Clermont Auvergne, France, reminds us of the benefits to be gained from doing nothing, and debunks a few clichés.


s it true that time flies when you’re having fun? That a dull day drags on for ever?

Professor in developmental and cognitive psychology, Sylvie Droit-Volet has spent her career studying how we experience passing time and the factors that influence our capacity to estimate durations.

We are, she says, pretty good timekeepers but also very much influenced by our mood.

“Time passing slowly is an indirect sign that all is not well”

Europa Star: What is time?

Sylvie Droit-Volet: Saint Augustine wrote, “What is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it, I do not know.” Time is a concept with multiple meanings. For historians, it can be a chronology of events over a period of years or centuries. For biologists, it’s a micro-time that governs cellular activity. Physicists apprehend time on a scale that can be infinitely large, that of the universe, or infinitely small, that of atoms, and which is entirely beyond our experience and consciousness.

And on a human scale?

Humans created social time primarily to facilitate life within a community. Calendars were invented to plan events such as harvests and religious festivals over the course of a year. Clocks were made to measure time and to organise activity by members of a society, such as work, prayer or meetings.

Psychological time concerns our attitudes towards temporality, such as how we represent time or our ability to orient ourselves within a day or the calendar. My research focuses on two main aspects: awareness of the passing of time, hence what makes time appear to pass quickly or slowly, and our capacity to estimate duration.

The sensation that time is passing more or less quickly depends on the context and our emotional state. We find time passes slowly when we are bored or sad, and quickly when we are happy or doing something we enjoy or find interesting.

A day well spent flies by. On the other hand, we say the year went quickly when we feel we didn’t get much done. Is this a paradox?

No, because it’s not the same question. The second instance is an autobiographical perspective. For example, when an elderly person says time passes more quickly now than when they were younger, it’s because they are considering time on the scale of their lifetime. The years seem to pass quickly because they are conscious of having little time left and because they have already had a long life. Therefore it’s a mental evaluation more than a subjective impression. On the other hand, most seniors find that present time passes slowly, particularly those in residential care. This is related to a loss of independence, a slower pace and, often, depression. Compare this with the majority of young children who find that time goes quickly, particularly up to the age of five or six, simply because they’re generally happy.

So is time passing slowly a symptom of unhappiness?

Yes. In fact we can use this to monitor a person’s psychological state, for example someone who is experiencing a difficult situation such as depression or alcohol dependency. It’s an indirect sign that all is not well. Most of us find it easier to describe a change in the speed at which time passes than explain what’s wrong in our life.

Can we consciously alter our perception of time, through meditation for example?

Yes. People who meditate sometimes say time “stands still”, but it’s simply because they’ve stopped thinking about it.

Why study our ability to estimate durations?

It is a fundamental function of human beings. We live in a dynamic world, made up of events and the intervals that separate those events. In order to anticipate them, we have to correctly estimate durations. Our research has shown that there is no correlation between the sensation of passing time and our ability to estimate duration. Overestimating a duration doesn’t mean we find time passes slowly. Our perception of passing time isn’t based on our evaluation of duration.

Are we good timekeepers?

Generally, yes, we estimate durations accurately, which is why scientists believe the brain has some sort of internal clock. Estimates tend to vary more for longer durations than for shorter ones, particularly periods of more than three seconds. The main factors that cause us to overestimate or underestimate a duration are how attentive we are to that duration, our emotions and substances such as drugs that affect the brain. We know that sedatives slow our neural clock and that stimulants cause it to accelerate.

How does attention affect time perception?

Young children, who often have difficulty concentrating, are more likely to have a distorted sense of time. Similarly, people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, whose symptoms include impulsiveness and restlessness, underestimate durations. Studies have shown that an individual, when presented with a stimulus, will tend to underestimate the duration of that stimulus when they have to answer a question at the same time. For example, when they are shown a word and asked to describe the colour of that word.

Put simply, it’s as though our brain estimates duration by counting the “tick-tocks” of an internal clock. If we’re focused on something other than duration, such as a difficult task, we miss some of the tick-tocks and therefore underestimate how much time has passed. Of course, this idea of an internal clock is simply a metaphor. There is no single structure that tracks time but a complex neuronal system involving different brain regions.

Time as an old man with a compass, globe and hourglass, attributed to Francesco Salviati (1533-1567)
Time as an old man with a compass, globe and hourglass, attributed to Francesco Salviati (1533-1567)

What role do our emotions play?

The opposite happens. If we induce fear in someone, for example by showing them an image of a threatening individual, they will overestimate duration. This is linked to our physiological response to fear. Our body rhythm accelerates so that we can react quickly and this affects temporal circuits, too. This constitutes a major adaptive advantage: if time passes quickly, or at least appears to, we react faster to a dangerous situation.

Does language influence our perception of time?

Yes. Studies have shown that linguistic or cultural practices, especially the direction of writing, influence representations of time. Western culture symbolises time as an arrow from left to right and this influences how our brain processes temporal information. A stimulus displayed on the left of a screen is perceived as shorter than a stimulus displayed on the right.

People with perfect or absolute pitch can identify the interval between two notes and the pitch of a single note. Is there such a thing as “absolute time”: not just the ability to estimate durations but to accurately position oneself in time?

There is nothing to suggest this. Interestingly, musicians are especially good at estimating durations because rhythm is a key aspect of their profession. So are athletes and gamers.

We often say we “don’t have time”. What does this mean?

It’s part of an impression of living in an accelerating society. Personally I don’t believe we don’t have time, but that we waste a lot of time glued to our screens, checking messages on our phone or watching news streaming channels. Then there’s the idea that if we’re not constantly occupied, we’re not living life to the full. I don’t see it that way. We need to accept that we can’t do everything and take back control of our activity, our life, our time. We must learn to say no and learn to enjoy time.

The forgotten art of doing nothing?

Yes. When we’re “doing nothing” we’re actually doing a lot. We’re thinking, recharging our batteries, stimulating our creativity, losing ourselves in a beautiful landscape, contemplating our life… But remember! Doing nothing isn’t the same as being bored. Boredom is generally perceived as negative because we associate it with a lack of cognitive engagement and a feeling of sadness. We should relearn the value of letting go.

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