How time perception is warped by life-threatening situations, eye movements, tiredness, hypnosis, age, the emotions and more…
The mind does funny things to our experience of time. Just ask French cave expert Michel Siffre.
In 1962 Siffre went to live in a cave that was completely isolated from mechanical clocks and natural light. He soon began to experience a huge change in his perception of time.
When he tried to measure out two minutes by counting up to 120 at one-second intervals, it took him 5 minutes. After emerging from the cave he guessed the trip had lasted 34 days. He’d actually been down there for 59 days. His experience of time was rapidly changing. From an outside perspective he was slowing down, but the psychological experience for Siffre was that time was speeding up.
But you don’t have to hide out in a cave for a couple of months to warp time, it happens to us all the time. Our experience of time is flexible; it depends on attention, motivation, the emotions and more.
1. Life-threatening situations
People often report that time seems to slow down in life-threatening situations, like skydiving.
But are we really processing more information in these seconds when time seems to stretch? Is it like slow-motion cameras in sports which can actually see more details of the high-speed action?
To test this, Stetson et al. (2007) had people staring at a special chronometer while free-falling 50 metres into a net. What they found was that time resolution doesn’t increase: we’re not able to distinguish shorter periods of time when in danger. What happens is we remember the time as longer because we record more of the experience. Life-threatening experiences make us really pay attention but we don’t gain superhuman powers of perception.