Unpacking the reasons a minute can seem so short — or torturously long.
Five minutes can stretch to hours or shrink to seconds, depending on what you’re doing. When you’re waiting for the bus in the rain, those minutes are interminable. When you’re snatching them alone with someone you love, they’re gone in the blink of an eye.
Until now, scientists have tended to assume that these vagaries in how we perceive time originate in the brain. But a new study published in the journal Psychophysiology suggests that at the level of microseconds, variations in the “speed” of time may actually be linked to our heartbeat.
Beating fast and slow
In the study, researchers at Cornell University fitted undergraduates with electrocardiograms to measure their heartbeat, then asked them to listen to brief audio tones and guess their length. They found that the students’ estimation of the tone was longer when the interval between their heartbeats was longer, and shorter when their heartbeat was more frequent.
“Time is a dimension of the universe and a core basis for our experience of self,” says psychology professor Adam K. Anderson, per Science Daily. “Our research shows that the moment-to-moment experience of time is synchronized with, and changes with, the length of a heartbeat.”
Essentially — as anyone who’s ever received a “call me” text without explanation can testify — the heart doesn’t beat at a continuous pace. It speeds up and slows down depending on our activity level and emotional state. This, Dr. Anderson explains, provides a rhythm that our brain uses to understand how time is passing. A “pure influence of the heart” from each beat to the next, he says, can “help create a sense of time.”
According to the study’s lead author, Saeedeh Sadeghi, having a longer interval between heartbeats allows you to perceive more of the world around you. Basically, when your heart is quiet and your attention is uninterrupted, your capacity to notice your surroundings increases.
“When we need to perceive things from the outside world, the beats of the heart are noise to the cortex,” she said per The New York Times. “You can sample the world more — it’s easier to get things in — when the heart is silent.”
Does time fly when you’re having fun?
The findings offer a deeper insight into how we experience time in the moment, but there’s been heightened interest in how we subjectively see and estimate time ever since many of our lives “ground to a halt” during lockdown.
A study on time perception during the Covid-19 pandemic published in July 2020 found that 80 percent of participants’ experience of the passage of time was distorted compared to normal — with age, stress, activity level, and social satisfaction proving the crucial factors. Essentially, increased age and stress alongside low activity and lower social satisfaction were associated with a slower experience of time, while those who were young, busy, and socially satisfied felt time move more quickly.
“These findings demonstrate that significant changes to daily life have a significant impact on our experience of time, with younger, more socially satisfied people more likely to experience time as passing more quickly during the lockdown,” the study said.
Why does our internal clock switch up so much?
The lockdown study’s findings tally with what we already know of psychological states like depression, during which people often report that time “drags” and they feel that their days are endless. But what’s the purpose of these perceived shifts in the speed of time? According to Dr. Anderson, it may be related to our metabolism. Just as the body attempts to burn fewer calories when there’s less food available, the body may eke out time, making it seem longer or shorter depending on how much energy we have.