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Controlling the Flow of Time

Can we modify how quickly life passes by?

When I conduct an interview for a story, I record it on a digital recorder and transcribe it using transcription software connected to a foot pedal. The program interface has a slider that changes the rate of playback without altering the pitch, so I can whiz through the boring or irrelevant bits and slow down to hear the important stuff. Often I think: Wouldn't it be nice if we had a similar slider in our brains, so that we travel at Mach speed through the drudgery and stretch out the champagne-in-the-hot-tub moments indefinitely?

Well, in a way, we do have just such mental machinery. And if we're clever, we can consciously manipulate it to make time go slower or faster at will.

A little background. Unlike computers, human brains don't have a central clock inside them to let them directly measure the flow of time. Instead, we subconsciously keep track of the number of things that happen. Assuming that rate of "things happening" is more or less steady, then that total should more or less correlate with the amount of time that has passed. Of course, in practice that's a very faulty assumption. Things happen at tremendously varying rates. When you're lying in a hammock by the beach, pretty much nothing happens all afternoon. When your car is skidding into oncoming traffic, a ton of things seem to be happening all at once. That's why the perception of time varies so much. Minutes can feel like hours, and vice versa.

Researchers at the University College London investigated this idea directly by showing test subjects either a series of randomly changing stimuli or a static image. Then they were asked to judge how much time had passed. Those who watched the changing stimuli were much more accurate in their estimation. This finding supports the notion that the brain uses changes in the external environment to gauge the passage of time. Next, subjects were shown a video clip played back at two different speeds. They estimated that the clips took the same amount of time to play, though the sped-up up one actually took less.

The researchers concluded that "temporal statistical structure in the environment provides an important cue to elapsed time," but noted that "the bias induced by unnaturally structured stimuli is a counterpart to the improved accuracy gained when the environment accords with expectations." That is to say, since the brain keeps time by tracking the things going on in the outside world, you can fool yourself by violating its expectations of how often things happen.

A simple way to exploit this phenomenon is simply to relocate to an unfamiliar environment. As I've noted before, it's striking how the first few days of a vacation in a new place seem to go on an on, while the second half speeds by in a blur. That's because when we find ourselves surrounded by novelty, our conscious minds are engaged over and over again by the sorts of things that normally are generic parts of the background. Even the salt and pepper packets on the restaurant table are different and interesting. Your mind is so busy processing new sights and sounds that your inner time keeper assumes that a lot of time must have passed by. By the time we've been ensconced in our new surroundings for a few days, we've begun to slip into a routine, and the novelty factor wears off. Time reverts to its normal velocity.

You don't have to buy a plane ticket to slow down time. Other psychological states also increase the density of conscious perception. Fear, for one. When our fight-or-flight system kicks in, a surge of noradrenaline helps the brain to focus its energies on awareness of the immediate environment. We notice more things, and we also remember them better, and as a result we get that slow-motion effect that features in so many action movies. When I wrote about this effect last year readers wrote in with dozens of stories of how they were able to perceive minute details of accident scenes and watched falling objects seem to float towards the ground.

Athletes report a similar phenomenon when they achieve that storied psychological condition known as "flow" or "the zone." Again, the brain's machinery for conscious awareness of the surrounding environment seems to be working at peak efficiency, gathering sights and sounds and other perceptions and storing them in memory. As Damon Burton and Thomas D. Raedeke put it in their book Sports Psychology for Coaches, "Athletes in flow are completely focuses and absorbed in their performance, and their heightened focus makes them aware of everything going on around them that relates to their performance." The problem: flow "can be somewhat elusive. Flow happens only when athletes let it happen, rather than trying to make it happen. The harder one tries to get into flow, the more elusive it is."

So athletic flow is impossible to achieve by conscious will. Travel is expensive. Being really frightened is not a state that many of us aspire to. Is there a practical way to slow down time?

Well, one approach is simply to try to surround yourself with as many intense, novel experiences as possible, to give your internal perception-driven clock as much material as possible to crunch. In fact, a writer named Matt Danzico is in the process of conducting a year-long experiment on himself to test this very idea. He's documenting the process at a web site called The Time Hack, which he describes as an "effort to challenge one person's perception of time." He explains that "Each day, I engage in a new experience to understand how my perception of time speeds and slows in relation to each event." So far he's done 49 mind-stretching things, from lying down in the middle of a street (not a very busy one) to making prank calls and putting his hands in the water of the East River (uh-oh!).

I wonder, though, if he might fall afoul of the time-flies-when-you're-having fun effect. This view of time dilation -- that the best way to make time crawl is by being incredibly bored -- was most memorably the character Dunbar from Joseph Heller's Catch-22, who attempts to prolong his existence in the face of the inevitability of death by cultivating a deliberate practice of boredom. When we meet Dunbar, he's sharing a hospital ward with the protagonist, Yossarian:

Dunbar was lying motionless on his back again with his eyes staring up at the ceiling like a doll's. He was working hard at increasing his life span. He did it by cultivating boredom. Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his life span that Yossarian thought he was dead.

We've all experienced this sensation, the feeling of being trapped in a moment that's going nowhere. And it's the exact opposite of what Danzico is after. Can Dunbar and Danzico both be right?

I think they can, and here's why: time when you're bored seems to stretch on and on only when you're in it. When you look back on that long afternoon staring at the ceiling, it seems to have gone by in a blink. Conversely, time may seem to rush by when you're having fun -- when you're approximating an athlete's state of flow -- but when you look back on it, a long time seems to have passed.

In short, I think that Danzico, not Dunbar, is on the right track. And if nothing else, I'm sure that Danzico will come away from it having lived a much more interesting life.