September 4, 2004
Scientists have discovered why time flies. As this ScienCentral News video reports, researchers have found that it's all about grabbing your attention.
Science has chimed in on whether time really does fly when you're having fun. Keyano College psychologist Anthony Chaston says the key to perceiving time as passing quickly is, not surprisingly, a busy brain.
Chaston studied this phenomenon while at the University of Alberta. "What we were particularly interested in is looking at the perception of time that people have and recognizing that time passes for people in different ways under different circumstances," says Chasten. "It's not a linear track that just passes on exactly the same for every individual. There are certain circumstances that we recognize, and I think that everybody recognizes, where time seems to fly by very quickly and there are other times where it seems to fly by much more slowly."
Chaston devised a test that asked participants to find items in various images. The entirely visual test had seven difficulty levels; the easy levels had items that were easy to spot because they had different colors than the rest of the image, or stood out among few other things. In the harder levels, the items were among similar looking things, or were not even visible in the image. Before any of the participants began the test, they were told that when the test was done they would be required to estimate how long the test took.
Other attempts to measure what makes time fly have involved tasks that were both mental and physical in nature. Chaston wanted to isolate just for mental activity. Participants only had to move two fingers in order to complete the test.
Reporting in the journal Brain and Cognition, Chaston found that the harder the test was, the smaller the estimates became of how long the test took. "Generally, people are not particularly good at estimating time as a general rule," he says. "We tend to see a lot of general underestimation, though it varies depending upon the specific tasks you ask people to do. But, what we found in the study is that people tended to underestimate more when their attention was engaged more heavily. So when we gave them the more demanding visual search task, they gave us smaller estimates for the duration of the interval."
Chaston says scientists don't know exactly what's going on in the brain to cause this time shift, or where in the brain it happens. But the theory of how we keep track of time begins with a metaphoric clicking of an internal timer. "If we want to pay attention to the passage of time we have to monitor those clicks and kind of keep track of them," he explains. "So imagine there's clicks coming along and there's a place where you're sort of storing them. If your attention is engaged in another activity, like a visual search task, that leaves a smaller amount of attention available to keep track of the ticks. So what happens over time is that you miss some of the ticks. Then at the end of the interval we ask you, 'How long has it been since you started the task?' Somehow, you sort of assess what you accumulated in this collection of ticks, but you've missed a bunch of them. So, you underestimate. And the more demanding the task is, the more it pulls your attention away from gathering the ticks and the less attention that's left available…to collect those ticks at the end."
Chasten adds that he's not immune to losing track of the ticks of time. "Unfortunately, just because I study time estimation doesn't actually make me particularly good at it."
This research appeared in the July, 2004 issue of the journal Brain and Cognition.