Understanding how the mind perceives time

by Phil Lowe

It was Einstein who famously explained the idea that time is relative. He is supposed to have once said “When you sit with a girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes, when you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours, that’s relativity” In reality, Einstein never said this and the quote doesn’t really explain his theory of relativity properly but it is still a great quote. It captures how the mind interprets time and how it can really mess with our heads.

Time really does fly by when you are having fun. Think back to your school days and how you used to watch the clock when the end of the day was approaching. While the first hours in the morning went relatively quick, that last hour before you were allowed to go home, went incredibly slow. Think about playing a game with your friends. Your mom would shout out that “dinner is ready in thirty minutes”. You would think that is lots of time but before you know it, she is back outside almost straight away telling you that it is ready. Your mother was not lying to you (hopefully) it was just your perception of time was going faster. 

Numerous studies have looked into this and found that when you are engaged in an activity that you enjoy you are fully focused and not concerned with the time, it will pass without you realizing. When you are bored you are super focused on the time it will pass by very noticeably. This allows us to perceive that time is going by at a different speed (not related to Einstein’s theory of relativity).

The mind does play more tricks on us too. If you have ever gone skydiving you will know that the freefall takes about 30 seconds. These 30 seconds are likely a little bit enjoyable and a lot scary. So does our mind make it go faster or slower? Well, if you ask anyone who has skydived or if you have done it yourself you will know that those 30 seconds last a long time. It feels like you are falling for entire minutes. 

This is no longer just a perception. Your brain is actually slowing things down when it is in a high-stress mode. In frightening situations, your brain is extra alert and tries to take account of everything that is happening. If you imagine your brain like a camera. It usually takes a picture and submits it to memory every few seconds. When it is frightened it takes as many pictures as it can, making you feel like it took an even longer time.

Today many of us are stuck at home in a boring and scary situation, the coronavirus pandemic. This is a struggle for our minds because it is boring and therefore time is perceived as taking longer, as we are all counting down the days until normality returns. Added to this we are all in a higher stress zone and a little bit frightened of what will happen. This makes our brain pay more attention and means that time is going slower for us too. 

This means that time is going extra, extra slow for everyone during the coronavirus pandemic, and is one reason why everyone gets a little cranky sometimes. This thing feels like it has been around for months or years already. To combat that try and focus your time on things that are fun and have goals. This will make time go faster. The more you do this the better chance of time flying by and this pandemic ending before you even realize. While that is still not exactly what Einstein meant by relativity it does show that time is all relative

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