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The Bizarre Reality That We Can Change Our Own Perception of Time
We’ve all experienced this feeling unconsciously.
Before we get started… Speaking of bizarre realities.
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Now to today’s piece…
We’ve all experienced that bizarre feeling that when we were younger, the days seem to go longer.
As you get older, time feels like it gets faster.
Today I had one of those moments that defies the norm. I had a shower and just stood there looking at the water fall from the shower head.
Time seemed to slow down.
My mind stopped racing a hundred miles an hour, and time seemed to stand still. I looked at the clock after this moment and only a minute or two had passed.
Another moment caused me to think about how we perceive time. It was a Linkedin troll who said: “Tim, you seem like you lived so many lives, how can any of what you say be true?”
I thought about what he said. I have lived many lives in my short, thirty-something years of life because I’ve done a lot of things.
I got into business when I was 16, then I became a DJ, then a producer, and then started several more businesses. After that, I spent 10 years working in finance and eCommerce.
Now I run an online business. Since 2014 I have been on this epic blogging journey that from the outside might not seem real or plausible. All of this has happened in what many would say is a short period of time — and they’d be right.
These two scenarios have led me to the idea that we can speed up and slow down time based on a number of different factors. David Eagleman seems to have some pretty good evidence to back this up.
The research on slowing down time
David Eagleman has spent more than a decade studying the brains biological clock which causes many of the experiences/hacks I’ll describe below, to occur.
David says to try this exercise to see just how your brain affects your perception of time:
“Go look in a mirror. Now move your eyes back and forth, so that you’re looking at your left eye, then at your right eye, then at your left eye again.
When your eyes shift from one position to the other, they take time to move and land on the other location. But here’s the kicker: you never see your eyes move.”
There’s no evidence of any gaps in your perception — no darkened stretches like bits of blank film — yet much of what you see has been edited out. Your brain has taken a complicated scene of eyes darting back and forth and recut it as a simple one: your eyes stare straight ahead.
Where did the missing moments go?
Eagleman’s books highlight that it’s still unclear how many internal clocks our bodies contain.
Parkinson’s disease has already been shown to leave a humans ability to time split seconds intact but completely mess up time intervals of a few seconds.
The cerebellum, basal ganglia and parts of the cortex have all been suggested as potential timekeepers in the human body, but there is no agreement, as yet, on which one.
In an article written about Eagleman, he talks about how our human sensors have different reaction times and it doesn’t all happen in sync. Benjamin Libet, whose work Eagleman has followed says:
“We are not conscious of the actual moment of the present. We are always a little late.”
One of the most interesting things Eagleman says is this:
If all our senses are slightly delayed, we have no context by which to measure a given lag.
Using these learnings, we may be able to explain part of why the ways in which my own perception of time has been able to be changed.
Some of my life memories above are crystal clear yet the seven years working in finance feels like it only lasted a year, if that.
My everyday habits and patterns could have been influencing my perception of time based on Eagleman’s research.
The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last.
“This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” — why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing.
The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.
In another story that was emailed to Eagleman, we can see the perception of time change again.
A museum curator describes how he witnessed an expensive vase take forever to actually fall to the ground once it was knocked over. It felt like a long time, according to the curator, even though it wasn’t.
Eagleman has also done another study of drummers and the way they interpret time. This fascinated me as I used to be a drummer myself for 8 years.
Over the last two decades, metronomes (click tracks) have been used to keep drummers in time and it has had an adverse effect. The feel and groove of a song has been somewhat lost.
To overcome this perception of time by drummers, click tracks and metronomes are often altered to drift in and out of time in live concerts.
In the studio, sound engineers use several computer plugins, like beat detective, which have templates to help move a drum beat in and out of time, to make the song feel more human.
Having a drum beat feel more human, by manipulating time, is a fascinating idea when you think about it. The very technology we use to make the timing of a beat perfect is the same tool that is having a negative effect on how we perceive the feeling a song gives us — thus our perception of time that a beat gives us in the process.
The research that Eagleman has does is far and wide and I won’t go through all of it with you here.
The simplistic conclusion to his research is: Time is not what we think it is.
Here’s how to speed up or slow down your perception of time:
1. Make a drastic change
Move house, change job or date someone different. Time slows down when we make a drastic change.
It’s why when people decide to live in a different country their perception of time changes. It’s this beautiful sensation of how we interpret time that makes some people addicted to travel and living in different countries.
It’s not the travel itself but how they perceive time that makes them want to travel more.
A few years ago I quit my job, moved house, got a new girlfriend, went to Europe and changed my circle of friends. Through all of these changes, I felt time change. The week I moved house felt like it lasted for half the year when in reality it was only a few weeks.
Through the process of change, I also made the decision to give away most of my belongings which changed my environment. Overnight everything I’d built over the last seven years had been torn to pieces.
This process of destruction has seriously messed with how I experience time — in essence, things have slowed down.
Drastic change can make you feel like time has slowed down.
2. Try the four day work week
The working week used to be madness for me. I’d be in back-to-back meetings and facing the same challenges over and over, every single day.
There were weeks where days feel like they blend into each other.
4 years ago I committed to taking Thursday off every week — thus breaking up the week — to pursue my side hustle of blogging and social media.
The way my week felt changed. The weeks seemed to move slower and I found myself being able to get into my creative zone.
Instead of being desperate to get home because I felt like I didn’t have enough time to pursue my side hustle, I began to relax because it felt as if I had time to do both work and my side hustle.
Instead of doing the same job five days a week, try bending time by having two income streams or work realities.
3. Break your routine
Habits cause us to be on autopilot and that might seem helpful. It has its downsides though.
When you repeat the same patterns every day — like many people’s day jobs — your brain operates in autopilot meaning that you will most likely create fewer memories.
It’s for this reason that my career in finance/eCommerce which lasted for 10 years feels as if it only lasted 12 months. Thinking back to when I was a kid, the school holidays felt as though they lasted for months even though it was only two weeks.
Why is this?
Because when I was a kid, I was doing new things every day. I had no habits, I’d never read a book on self-improvement, TV didn’t run my life and play was my number one priority. You’ve probably experienced a similar childhood yourself.
The practical way to break your routine and feel as if time has slowed down is to do the following:
Experiment with meditation
Try meditative practices such as cleaning and walking, and notice how they make time feel slower
Take different modes of transport to work
Eat a different breakfast
Spend your weekends doing activities you’ve never done before — my last few weekends have been spent kayaking, rock climbing, boating, and doing an escape room for the first time
Book a couple of overseas trips per year
Breaking up your habits has the power to change how you perceive time.
4. Life-threatening situations change time
Ever been in a life-threatening situation?
Were you around to witness September 11th?
My most vivid memory of time slowing down was when I was 16 years old and I was randomly attacked by a gang of youths on my way home, with my good mate by my side.
I was beaten to a pulp with a baseball bat while my friend standing next to me was stabbed continuously with a knife while I watched, knowing I was next. I remember this situation like it was yesterday.
In that moment, I felt invincible as silly as that may sound.
It was the one time in my life where things couldn’t get any worse. Each blow from the baseball bat numbed me even more. I couldn’t feel any pain.
The strangest part was that my mind had a thought which was “This must be what it’s like to die so enjoy these last few moments.”
Thinking the end was coming made time go into slow motion.
I watched my whole life pass me by.It’s as if I could finally see the point to everything I’d ever experienced.
After this violent act occurred, I managed to escape. I looked at the time and realized that the whole experience had only been a few minutes yet my perception of time felt like it had lasted for hours.
My story is not unique. There have been many people that have witnessed time slow down while facing a life or death situation.
5. Mortality affects time too
It was after a few of these surreal, life-threatening experiences that my perception of time changed again.
Unconsciously, I began linking everything I did in life to my mortality. I thought about time every day in the context of what actions I was taking.
Thinking about mortality so frequently made me appreciate time even more. I began to crave the moments in which I could slow down time — such as meditation — because time had a different meaning and I wanted to experience life in a different way.
Thinking about mortality with everything you do can also help you perceive time differently.
Our perception and the reality are vastly different and therefore, the idea that we can change our own perception of time and even slow time down is not that far fetched.
It has certainly been a reality for me as described above. Think about your perception of time. It’s entirely possible that you can find a way to slow down your perception of time and therefore enjoy your life and live it to its fullest potential.
We can’t live longer, but it’s entirely possible we can slow our perception of time down.
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