What people find important seems to take longer

What people find important seems to take longer

Holiday days full of adventure and new impressions often seem to have lasted weeks, while people remember little about normal working days. American neuroscientists have found an explanation for this: valuable experiences extend the sense of time. Brains process more information about things that are important. This requires extra effort and thus extends the sense of time. People also remember experiences that last longer. The findings were published last week in Nature Human Behavior.

Previously, scientists thought that you cannot perceive time without external stimuli. After all, we do not have separate senses that register time. But people can certainly give an interpretation of duration. In this way, more intense stimuli influence the perception of time. Louder sounds seem to last longer than in reality. Visual properties also extend the feeling of time, such as photos with deeper colors or stronger contrast.

Recently it has become clear that ‘how’ we see something also influences the experience of time. Photos that are “worth seeing” extend the perception of time, scientists at George Mason University in Virginia have concluded.

Large, empty warehouse

Initially, the research team wanted to know whether ‘size’ and ‘clutter’ of scenes in photos influence the perception of time. For example, the scientists defined a photo with a well-stocked cupboard as ‘smaller’ and ‘messier’ than a photo with a large but empty warehouse. Participants were shown 102 photos for less than a second (between 300 and 900 milliseconds). They then had to indicate whether they perceived the photo as ‘short’ or ‘long’.

Participants thought they had looked at the photos with large and neat scenes for longer than the actual time. In photos with smaller and ‘more messy’ scenes, their perception of time was actually shorter.

The researchers have two explanations for this: cluttered scenes are more difficult to navigate through, or the clutter made it more difficult to recognize objects. In both cases, the brain spent less time processing information, resulting in a shorter sense of time, they concluded.

The team also investigated whether ‘important’ photos change the perception of time. And indeed, participants felt that photos that were ‘worth remembering’ were viewed longer.

researcherMartin Wiener When we see something that is important, we want to get more information from it

The team used the same photos in a computer model that mimics the human visual system (R-CNN). They showed that the brain processes compelling photos faster than less compelling photos. The brain wants to collect as much information as possible from a fascinating photo, which means it processes more information per unit of time. This causes the perception of time to slow down: it is as if the memory plays back the images more slowly.

“The model showed us that we use time to understand what is happening around us. When we see something that is important, we want to get more information from it and we extend our sense of time,” says Martin Wiener, cognitive neuroscientist and one of the authors of the study.

It also appears that the relationship between sense of time and memory works both ways. If a photo is worth remembering, the brain spends more time on it, and the photo is also more likely to be remembered better.

The team now wants to conduct the same experiments on a larger group of participants and supplement them with brain scans to measure brain activity. Wiener suggests that in the future the brain could be artificially stimulated to influence processes of time and memory.

According to the researcher, the study also has broader implications: “To prevent days from flying by like a blur, do new and interesting things for you,” says Wiener.