Is Time Perception A Construct Of The Brain?

(Telegraph) The science behind making your holiday last longer

Ever noticed how a week spent in repose on a sandy beach seems to fly by, but seven days beavering away at the office drags on forever? It’s a tragedy. If only there were a way we could change that, making our holidays last longer and our labours fly by.

Well, a growing body of evidence suggests this is possible. Sure, an hour is an hour, a day a day, but the mind, claim scientists, can be tricked into thinking otherwise. You just have to know how.

“Time perception, just like vision, is a construction of the brain – and shockingly easy to manipulate,” wrote David Eagleman, a US neuroscientist and best-selling author, in an essay titled Brain Time.

“We all know about optical illusions, in which things appear different from how they really are; less well known is the world of temporal illusions.”

Temporal illusions are things that distort our perception of time. They can be triggered by all sorts of experiences: sport, sex, sightseeing, even psychedelic drugs. Especially psychedelic drugs.

“When you begin to look for temporal illusions, they appear everywhere,” said Eagleman, who once tested his theory about time perception by throwing people off a 15-storey building.

Well, sort of. The building was actually a platform, suspended above the ground by a crane, and beneath it hung a safety net which caught the falling people (who were, it should be noted, willing volunteers).

After free falling into the safety net, participants were asked to retrospectively reproduce the duration of their fall using a stopwatch.

“Their duration estimates of their own fall,” noted Eagleman, “were a third greater, on average, than their recreations of the fall of others.”

By experiencing something extraordinary, exciting – and terrifying – their perception of time had slowed down. For those brief moments, their lives seemed to last longer. Other research supports this claim.

So why is this so? Well, according to Eagleman, in a critical situation, say freefalling off a 15-storey platform, a walnut-size area of the brain called the amygdala is activated, which commandeers the resources of the rest of the brain and forces your entire grey matter to focus on the the situation at hand.

“When the amygdala gets involved, memories are laid down by a secondary memory system,” said Eagleman. “So in a dire situation, your brain may lay down memories in a way that makes them ‘stick’ better.

Upon replay, he argues, the higher density of data would make the event seem to last longer.

Eagleman’s research suggests that if you spend your holiday bungee jumping and skydiving it will appear to last longer than if you spend it lounging around on a beach. A third longer, by all accounts.

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