by Gavin Haines, The Telegraph, April 12, 2017
Ever noticed how a week spent in repose on a sandy beach seems to fly by, but seven days beavering away at the office drags on forever? It’s a tragedy. If only there were a way we could change that, making our holidays last longer and our labours fly by.
Well, a growing body of evidence suggests this is possible. Sure, an hour is an hour, a day a day, but the mind, claim scientists, can be tricked into thinking otherwise. You just have to know how.
“Time perception, just like vision, is a construction of the brain – and shockingly easy to manipulate,” wrote David Eagleman, a US neuroscientist and best-selling author, in an essay titled Brain Time.
“We all know about optical illusions, in which things appear different from how they really are; less well known is the world of temporal illusions.”
Temporal illusions are things that distort our perception of time. They can be triggered by all sorts of experiences: sport, sex, sightseeing, even psychedelic drugs. Especially psychedelic drugs.
“When you begin to look for temporal illusions, they appear everywhere,” said Eagleman, who once tested his theory about time perception by throwing people off a 15-storey building.
Well, sort of. The building was actually a platform, suspended above the ground by a crane, and beneath it hung a safety net which caught the falling people (who were, it should be noted, willing volunteers).
After free falling into the safety net, participants were asked to retrospectively reproduce the duration of their fall using a stopwatch.
“Their duration estimates of their own fall,” noted Eagleman, “were a third greater, on average, than their recreations of the fall of others.”
By experiencing something extraordinary, exciting - and terrifying - their perception of time had slowed down. For those brief moments, their lives seemed to last longer. Other research supports this claim.
So why is this so? Well, according to Eagleman, in a critical situation, say freefalling off a 15-storey platform, a walnut-size area of the brain called the amygdala is activated, which commandeers the resources of the rest of the brain and forces your entire grey matter to focus on the the situation at hand.
"When the amygdala gets involved, memories are laid down by a secondary memory system,” said Eagleman. “So in a dire situation, your brain may lay down memories in a way that makes them ‘stick’ better.”
Upon replay, he argues, the higher density of data would make the event seem to last longer.
Eagleman’s research suggests that if you spend your holiday bungee jumping and skydiving it will appear to last longer than if you spend it lounging around on a beach. A third longer, by all accounts.
Of course there are less terrifying ways of manipulating your grey matter. Cue Dr Steve Taylor, a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, who authored a book, Making Time, about this very subject.
Taylor started studying time perception after spending a brief period living in Berlin. “It was just after the Wall came down,” he told Telegraph Travel. “I was a musician at the time and went out there to play in a band.”
He was only in the German capital for six months, but it “felt like 10 years.” Upon returning to Blighty he was struck by the repetitive routine of the daily grind and how, paradoxically, life seemed to pass by faster.
Nearly three decades later, his studies have led him to the conclusion that there are two ways we can slow down our perception of time: by throwing ourselves into unfamiliar situations and paying conscious attention to the experiences we are having.
“Time perception is related to information processing so the more information our minds and our senses take in the slower time seems to go,” said Dr Taylor, who, aptly, was speaking to us from Scotland, where he was enjoying an active family holiday.
“Unfamiliarity – new experiences, new environments, any kind of newness – slows down our perception.”
A fly-and-flop resort holiday, he argues, is less likely to slow down time than, say, navigating a new city or trekking through the mountains. But that’s not to say you have to be doing something active to slow down your holiday.
“If you make a conscious effort to actually attend to your experiences – in other words being aware of your surroundings and the feeling of being where you are – then that also has the effect of making time slow down,” said Dr Taylor.
This, essentially, ties into what is commonly called mindfulness.
Now I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t this contradict the old cliché that time flies when you’re having fun? Well, no. Because in those situations, says Dr Taylor, you’re often focused on just one thing – watching a play, reading a book, having a dance – rather than taking in the sounds, smells and sights around you.
The same applies when you’re bored; time slows down, or seems to, because you’re not really focusing on one thing. Rather than looking at that Excel document, you’re looking through it, daydreaming about myriad other things: what you’re having for tea, where you’re going on holiday, whether you like your colleague’s perfume.
So what does Dr Taylor do to slow down his holidays?
“Go to new places, try new things, meet new people and be attentive to the experience,” he said. “We only get a certain amount of holiday each year so it’s very important to make them last as long as possible and expand our time perception as much as we can.”