by Tom McBride

Learn Swahili and Slow Down Time!

By Aarti Chawla and Tom McBride

Can we control the passage of time? No—but, once we understand how time “feels,” we can influence how we experience it.

Among the millions of people who respond each year to the Beloit College Mindset List, many report shock in learning that various events, which seemed to happen just yesterday, actually occurred nearly twenty years ago. When the co-creators of the List state that for an entering college class “Carl Sagan has always been dead,” older respondents say the death of Sagan (or Kurt Cobain or Princess Diana) seems to have happened last month, not two decades ago.

A well-known factoid is that time speeds up for people as they age. In 1890 William James attributed this phenomenon to a decrease in novelty. When we are young, he suggested, we confront all sorts of new things—all sorts of “firsts” from learning to read to learning to bike—and the cognitive complexity gives the whole experience a long-drawn-out feeling. As we age, there are fewer and fewer firsts in our lives, and thus commonplace events become routine, an occurrence known as ‘neural adaptation.”

Time passes quickly—and this can be discouraging if you are getting old and would like for your remaining years to pass by more s-l-o-w-l-y.

For a five year old, a year is 20% of her life thus far, while for a 50 year old it’s only 2%. It seems natural that the elder would think of a year as a much smaller unit and that it would fly by.

James’s theory isn’t the only one. Time perception, one’s subjective notion of time, exists in a field between psychology and neuroscience. Some researchers attribute the illusion of time’s passing quickly, or slowly, to brain chemistry. Children with ADHD, for instance, have been found to think time is crawling while Parkinson’s patients and those suffering from schizophrenia have difficulty estimating time. Dopamine, a key neurotransmitter in the brain, has been linked with this inability to gauge time accurately, and this may stem from chemical alterations in a person’s working memory. In fact, expressions of dopamine receptors and transporters decrease over time. This reduction could play a role in altered time perception of the aging brain.

And then there is the factor of stress. While we are in the midst of meeting an impending deadline or trying to react quickly to being in a car accident, time appears to speed up (the deadline seems to be getting closer and closer) or slow down (to those in danger car crashes seem to happen in slow motion). From an evolutionary viewpoint, having a deadline and feeling that time is galloping towards it, makes sense, because such a perception sparks us to get the job done. And from an evolutionary perspective, being in a car accident–and seeming to have eons to respond wisely to this frightful event–makes sense.

Memory also plays a role. Time and memory are neurologically linked. The amygdala, an almond-shaped area in the brain, is responsible for the processing of emotion, memory, and decision-making. But during a high-stress situation, the amygdala’s primary role is devoted to decision-making. As a result, different neural circuits are free to devote enormous attention to memory, and this may result in memory becoming embedded “deeper” in the brain. One consequence of this more “profound” recall is that the decision-maker’s perception of time is slowed perceptibly.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing if subjective time speeds up? It could be a good thing. If time slows when you experience certain strong emotions—those in the grip of fear report that time and space go into slow motion—then the fast passage of time, over the years, may suggest that your life has gone pretty well. There have been no deep valleys or great crises.

On the other hand, experiences of great joy may also slow time. So perhaps if you’re one that believes Carl Sagan or Kurt Cobain died just yesterday, it means your life, over the last twenty years, has been rather…meh. Thus, if you’re an older person worried about the perception of very limited time left, you might want to slow it up by bringing into your life a “joyful crisis”–as paradoxical as that might seem.

What is a “joyful crisis?” Well, it might be something like learning Swahili. It will be difficult for you—that’s the crisis part, as you’ll get fretful when you don’t make immediate progress—but as you get better you’ll experience joy. And the whole thing will seem like several lifetimes, even if it only takes you a year or so.

Don’t you feel better already?


Tom McBride is professor emeritus of English at Beloit College and co-author of the Annual Mindset List and the forthcoming Mindset List of the Obscure (Sourcebooks). Aarti Chawla is a neuroscience graduate student at the Indiana University School of Medicine and a 2009 graduate of Beloit: for her and her class Andy Warhol has always been dead and it feels like she has been in graduate school FOREVER.

You can follow the Mindset list and Aarti Chawla on Twitter @themindsetlist and @aartichawla87 respectively.


*James, William, The Principles of Psychology, Chapter XV. Dover, 1950.

*Levy, F., Swanson, J. Timing, space and ADHD: the dopamine theory revisited. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2001; 35: 504-511.

*Dreher, J., Meyer-Lindenberg, A., Kohn, P., Berman, K. Age-related changes in midbrain dopamine regulation of the human reward system. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2008: 105 (39): 15106- 15111.

Eagleman, D. Brain Time. Edge (6.23.09) http://edge.org/conversation/brain-time


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