Are Days Passing Too Quickly? Memorable Experiences Might Help Dilate Your Sense of Time, Research Suggests

How we process time is linked to things we see, according to a new study, which found memorable, non-cluttered imagery can make moments seem to last longer

Green and purple northern lights color the night sky above a mountain range
Memorable, large images and scenes are associated with a longer perception of time, a new study suggests. Keith Ramos / USFWS

If it feels as though time is passing by too quickly, a recent study offers a scientific basis for how to slow down and make moments more memorable.

Published last month in the journal Nature Human Behavior, the paper identifies a link between how the human brain processes certain images and how much time we perceive to have passed: The more memorable a visual, the researchers found, the longer we feel we have spent with it.

“When we see things that are more important or relevant, like things that are more memorable, we dilate our sense of time in order to get more information,” Martin Wiener, a cognitive neuroscientist at George Mason University and a co-author of the study, tells the Guardian’s Nicola Davis.

Previous research has shown that certain sensory elements contribute in big ways to how we experience time passing. For example, louder, brighter or more intense stimuli can make moments seem to last longer, and the same is true for clock-watching—it can make time seem to slow down. The phrase “time flies when you’re having fun” may also be true, as the release of dopamine can speed up one’s internal clock.

Our circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep-wake cycles, is one kind of body clock—but it doesn’t have an effect on the subjective way we experience time passing. Likewise, our sense of time is not attributed to a single area of the brain. Instead, a combination of brain regions and factors define our relationship to time, Wiener tells Scientific American’s Allison Parshall.

“Because we do not have a sensory organ dedicated to encoding time, all sensory organs are in fact conveying temporal information,” Virginie van Wassenhove, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Paris–Saclay in France who was not involved in the study, tells Nature News’ Lilly Tozer.

To better understand this relationship, the scientists designed several experiments to test how visuals affect the way people feel time move. Across all phases of the research, they gave participants between 300 milliseconds and one second to view an image, repeated multiple times with different pictures.

They showed participants images from a set of 252 total, which varied in both “clutter,” or how many stimuli a scene contained, and the size of the things featured in the scene.

After presenting each image, researchers asked the participants if they felt they were shown the scene for a “long” or a “short” amount of time. The team also asked them to press and hold a button for the amount of time they felt they had viewed the picture.

This revealed a few telling trends: For one, larger scene sizes appeared to dilate time—participants viewing these images felt they saw them for longer than they actually did. Cluttered and busy scenes, on the other hand, shrank time—with participants saying they’d seen these images for a shorter duration.

Then, the researchers gathered a set of 196 images that were ranked by a machine learning model based on how memorable they were. Participants were shown each of these images, and when they returned the next day, the researchers conducted a test of which images they remembered, and which they had forgotten.

Participants said the images ranked as most memorable had been shown to them for longer, even if they hadn’t been—and they were more likely to remember images they thought they had seen for more time.

Finally, the team fed the images into a machine learning model that was trained to process the pictures over time, similar to the way a human brain does. They found that images ranked as more memorable were processed by the computer more quickly.

These results suggest that our perception of time is linked to visual processing. When confronted with interesting, new or important information, time could feel as if it slows down as we analyze, make sense of and internalize a scene.

“Sometimes, something just needs that extra processing—or less processing—that changes the pace and can change how time feels,” Wilma Bainbridge, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the study, tells Scientific American.

Still, the researchers aren’t exactly sure why this relationship exists. Future studies could involve a larger number of participants, or scientists could test whether the brain can be artificially stimulated to process time and memory a certain way.

But for those interested in slowing down the busy pace of life, the team points out a meaningful takeaway.

“What it suggests is that if we want time to feel like things are [taking] longer, we need to seek out things that are themselves more memorable. And by that I mean things that are novel and interesting and new to us,” Wiener tells the Guardian. “This is why a vacation can seem to last much longer than, say, the equivalent amount of time during your daily routines.”

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