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Time Perception


During our life, our relationship with a clock is not stable. We cannot understand how time passes flying when we are having fun, and, when we are bored, it feels like decades.

The space between how time passes and how we experience it has been studied for almost 150 years. In the 1800s, Gustav Theodor Fechner and Ernst Heinrich Weber become pioneers in the research for human complexity, the basis of time perception.

Nowadays, studying time is a combo of mixed linguistics, neuroscience, integrative research, and cognitive psychology.

The internal timekeeper

For years, scientists linked the perception of time with theoretical models that state that we had like a watch in our brain that accelerates when we were excited and slows down when we were quieter. The advance in technologies allowed them to go into more detail, and the conclusions were that not only just a single brain area but multiple process our subjective timekeeping.

Despite that, neuroscientists do not discard the role of emotions on the way we feel the passing of time, a distorted notion. Other researches also show that pursuit rewards and goods are a component of temporal illusions. These studies, normally, integrate the oddball effect, a phenomenon in which finding new stimulations increase the perception of time passing.

The pursuit of pleasure

Desire, on the other hand, can have a different effect regarding the previous conclusions. In 2012, at the University of Alabama, the motivation to achieve goals was tested, and the following conclusions emerge high commitment drive to shortened perceptions of time.

Gable and Poole have proposed that states with high motivation make us feel that time is flying, due to the fact they straight our memory and attention process, in a way that blocks irrelevant feelings and thoughts.

The authors suggested that this phenomenon can have positive implications. If reaching a goal implies waiting, this may be advantageous, since that time would seem shorter.

Taking a pause

Behavioural science studies from Standford University conclude that other positive emotions can have an oppositive effect: awe conditions reported feeling time passing more slowly.

Also, when we are in the countryside in contact with nature, our time perception compared to when we are in urban areas is different. Time runs more slowly in nature when tested in labs and faster in the field.


Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological. And so, it is the most studied one. Under the influence of fear, people seem to feel that time is not passing. Studies suggest that fear distorts our experience of time to be prepared to act in a defensive mood, as fast as possible. For example, people that have suffered unpleasant events say that time slows down, that is, time is overestimated. Because we are waiting for a bad thing to happen, we feel every passing second.


In opposite to fear, anxiety is the “foot on the accelerator of time”. Anxiety is a normal stress reaction, and besides what everybody thinks, it can be a good thing, when alerting us to danger and help us prepare and pay attention. It alters what we are conscious of and so we are not rationally considering the same variables as before. It seems that we do not know how to control the things in our environment, and we are not aware of what influences them.

Wrapping up

Indeed, our emotions affect our awareness of changes in the environment and time passing. It will always be like this if we can feel these emotions. Maybe other people’s emotions also alter your perspective of time. Sometimes stressed people make you feel anxious, happy people make you feel happy, and so on. Our environment is composed of people and as human beings, it is a whole net of socializing and feeling together.

Written by:

Beatriz Martins and Natízia Oliveira


The Fluidity of Time: Scientists Uncover How Emotions Alter Time Perception, Association for Psychological Science

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