Meditation May Change the Way We Perceive Time

New research shows how meditation can help you feel like you have more time.

Posted Oct 29, 2019

New research has found that meditation can change the way that we perceive the passing of time. Researchers published new findings in the journal PLoS One. The studies found that mindfulness meditation increased happiness, decreased anxiety, and also changed people’s perception of time. 

In the study, participants meditated for 15 minutes and then were asked to continue meditating for another 15 minutes for a total of 30 minutes. During the second half of meditation, participants were asked to judge short and long intervals of time. Short intervals lasted between 15 seconds to 50 seconds and long intervals were between two to six minutes.

Researchers found that people who meditated underestimated short periods of time (i.e., they thought less time had passed than actually did) and overestimated long periods of time (i.e., they thought more time had passed than actually did). Regardless of short or long time periods, people reported that they felt like time passed quickly during meditation compared to people who were not meditating.

How our mind perceives time depends on a variety of factors, including the length of time being estimated. One theory is that we use mechanisms of our memory to recall how much time has passed. According to these memory-based models of how we judge time in hindsight, our judgment depends on 1) how we are feeling (emotion), 2) how complex and how many events have happened 3) how demanding or how much attention the activity requires. The more a task requires of our attention, the more we tend to judge time to be longer and overestimate the passing of time. 

If you have driven long distances on an uneventful highway, you may have experienced this phenomenon. Driving long distances in an area without traffic can start to feel less demanding of your attention, and you may find that several hours have passed even though it felt shorter. But if you are doing tasks that require a lot of attention, like driving in a crowded traffic jam, you may feel like a lot of time has passed even though it has only been a short while because you have had to do a lot more tasks and it has a been more mentally demanding of your attention.

These results suggest that mindfulness meditation, a form of focused awareness, can be instrumental in how we perceive time. More broadly speaking, how we choose to engage with the world around us—and how attentive we choose to be—can deeply affect how we experience the passing of time day to day. If we are attentive and engaged moment to moment, with the same focus, awareness, and alertness that meditation demands, we may be able to experience a fuller and richer sense of the day—and it will, as a result, feel less like “time got away from us.” 

Noticing Time Meditation Exercise

You can try a candle meditation, a version of a focused awareness meditation, and observe how meditation affects your perception of time. 

  1. Light and/or place a candle about a foot in front of you, at or slightly below eye level.
  2. Find a comfortable seat with a tall spine, head reaching toward the ceiling. 
  3. Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  4. Focus your eyes on the candle flame. Observe the flame for 5 minutes, closing your eyes when needed.
  5. Now that your mind has settled into the meditation, set your timer for 30 seconds.
  6. Observe the candle flame. At the end of the 30 seconds, observe: How did this short period of time feel to you? How long would you have estimated that length of time?
  7. Now set the timer now for 3 minutes.
  8. Observe the candle flame. At the end of the 2 minutes, observe: How did this short period of time feel to you? How long would you have estimated that length of time?
  9. Notice if the shorter versus longer length of time felt different to you.