Every second counts

Why does life appear to speed up as we get older? And how come 'fast food' always seems to take so long? Matilda Battersby finds out how the clock plays tricks with our minds

Time is of the essence. Time heals all wounds. Time flies when you're having fun... Such time-based platitudes are neverending. In fact, time is the most-used noun in the English language, so concerned are we by our position in it, our grasp of it – and its power over us.

The platitudes exist because they represent broad, if scientifically unproven, notions that time is elastic. Time does seem to fly by when we're having fun. Likewise, it stretches out ad infinitum when we're willing it to zip past and deliver us with birthdays, Christmas Day or that longed-for holiday.

But how often do we examine the many nuances of our relationship with time? It is a construct, after all. If I were a member of the Amazon's Amondawa tribe I would have no word for time, no clocks and no calendar to chart months or years passing. But that doesn't mean my past, present or future would be fundamentally any different. Yet we rely on (and obsess about) timekeeping, time-saving and the rate at which we gobble it up.

There have been endless studies into time perception, whether or not time ticks away faster at altitude or whether there is any physical basis for the universal conclusion that time moves more slowly when we are children and speeds up as we grow older. Nobody knows the amount of time they will live in their lives and yet we claim time as our own, demand more, and feel cheated when we lose it.

Claudia Hammond, the psychology lecturer, broadcaster ("the voice of psychology" on Radio 4) and writer, has a better understanding than most of the ways that our perspectives on time can be morphed, manipulated and played with.

Her new book, Time Warped, examines the myriad ways that time seems to change gear. She also looks at our sense of time aesthetically and discovered that people visualise time in offbeat ways. Some see it as curling around like a Slinky or a roll of wallpaper; others may view days of the week as rectangles. To some, Monday is the colour red (though it is yellow to me).

The puzzles of time, the tricks it plays and the ways we unconsciously amend our relationship with it are explored in detail by Hammond. She has come up with the "holiday paradox", a description of the way that when we're relaxing on holiday, we feel that time cannot go faster. It whizzes by as we pack it full of new experiences. But when we look back afterwards, it feels as if we've been away for ages.

Here she explains (or disproves) other mysteries of time.

 

Time is determined by the body's circadian rhythms FALSE

The circadian rhythms affect only our 24-hour day/night cycle. They have nothing else to do with our perception of time from moment to moment. It's a myth that they affect time. We do, however, run an automatic body clock. This can go out of sync, which is known as "free running". This is common particularly in blind people, who are isolated from environmental time cues. In most of us, however, the circadian oscillations correct themselves using daylight.

 

Time speeds up as we get older FALSE

People think that time speeds up when we get older. But it's not true that time at any one moment (ie second by second) gets faster. It's our experiences over days, weeks, months and years that seem to condense. There's no biological basis for the sensation that it speeds up. It's simply to do with our judgements on time prospectively and retrospectively. Looking back, time seems to go faster, but it can also be strangely elastic.

 

Time is money TRUE

Social psychologist Robert Levine measured three things in 31 countries around the world to determine the tempo of life: the time taken to buy a stamp, average walking speed of pedestrians during rush hour, and the accuracy of clocks on the walls of banks. It followed that places such as London and New York had the fastest times and that there was a correlation (though this was pre-recession) between the pace of life and gross domestic product. This suggests a connection between time and money, though it isn't known which came first – the culture of rushing around or the buoyant economy.

 

We can mentally time-travel TRUE

We are the one animal able completely, at will, to throw ourselves backwards into the past or forwards into the future. The ability to conceive events that haven't happened yet is a crucial basis for our imagination. The reason our memories are so bad and let us down actually allows us mentally to time-travel into the future. The unreliability of memory is actually an indication of this sophistication. The mind uses our sense of space and memories to create a sense of the future. Amnesia sufferers lose the ability to imagine the future, as well as their ability to recall who they are or what's happened to them.

 

Time feels slower when you want something done fast TRUE

Psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford DeVoe conducted experiments that revealed that exposure to fast food, both visual symbols and actual food, increases feelings of impatience. We associate fast food with being in a hurry or a rush. This anxiety makes us feel time is going more slowly. Research shows people felt they had been waiting for far longer than they actually had.

 

Our sense of time can be affected by biological conditions TRUE

A high temperature (a fever, not just wearing too many jumpers) makes our perception of time change so it feels slower. American psychologist Hudson Hoagland's wife was lying in bed with bad flu and she allowed him to conduct time tests on her. Hoagland asked her to say when a minute had passed 30 times over a day. When her temperature reached 103F, she felt a minute was up after just 34 seconds.

'Time Warped' by Claudia Hammond (Canongate, £14.99)

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