Time, specifically its measurement, has fascinated humanity for thousands of years. As the devices we use to measure time have evolved, they have progressively become more elaborate and precise. NIST has a great page documenting the history of time. While time measurement itself is intriguing, perhaps even more fascinating is how we internally perceive time.
Before we get into how our direct perception of time can vary, let us step back and examine how we use time in our minds. What we perceive as "now" is actually old news since it takes time for our brain to receive and process the external stimuli. Let vsauce's Michael explain:
Not only do we physiologically perceive time differently from reality, we also psychologically focus on different parts of time. Some people live in the past while others are always counting on the future to be better. In total there are six different ‘time zones’ that people focus on (positive or negative) and (past, present, or future). If you want to find out which time zone you focus on, you can take a short survey on The Time Paradox's site. Alternatively, you can learn a bit more about these time zones by watching the following video:
We know that time plays an important role in how we experience reality both physiologically and psychologically, but what about if our actual perception of time become skewed? In fact, our perception of time can actually become so skewed that we believe reactions happen before we initiate them. Our mind can become used to a delay in time between action and reaction. If the delay is then shortened, we can believe a reaction happened prior to our action. This is explained in more detail in a small clip from Through the Wormhole:
This distortion of time doesn't simply happen through illness or scientific experiments though, it happens to us every day! Most of us are familiar with the old adage, "time flies when you are having fun." This isn't quite true. A more accurate statement would be that our perception of time is proportional to the amount of new and intricate experiences we are observing. If you are practicing a new sport or working on a project that involves a lot of concentration then you perceive time as slower. Since you have been absorbing more information than usual, time seems like it has expanded and thus feels longer.
Then why do we often feel like time flies when we are having fun? It may be because it seems faster compared to when we are bored (and thus paying a lot of attention to the passage of time). A great list discusses this possibility as well as several other great facts about time. Personally, we think it might result from a desire to continue the fun activity after it is done, thus resulting in it the perception that it was too short of a time, regardless of the actual length of the activity. It has also been found that different types of music can cause time to slow down as you get caught up in the music. Video gamers would certainly agree with a study done that showed how time seems to speed up and pass you by when you become absorbed in a video game - a day may pass before you even realize it!
Not only does our time perception vary throughout our day to day life, but it actually speeds up significantly as we get older. Science isn't sure if it is because our brain is slowing down, experiences are becoming less unique, or if each experience is shorter in proportion to our life thus far. NPR examined this and even did their own experiment, finding that older people (over 60) would often estimate a minute to actually be a minute and a half!
Now that you know a bit more about our sense of time, wouldn't it be fascinating to keep track of your own time perception? TicTocTrac allows you to do just that using methods outlined in the next section!
So our perception of time is constantly varying, how do we keep track of it?
There have been many psychological studies on time perception. Professor Dan Zakay has conducted numerous experiments on time perception. His 1997 article, Temporal Cognition, details four primary methods for measuring time perception:
In this test a subject is given a start and stop stimulus. The subject is then asked to guess the duration between the two stimuli. This guess can be compared to actual time to determine the subject's current time perception.
In this test a subject is asked to wait what they feel is a specific duration after a start stimulus. The subject then signals when they believe the desired duration has passed. The time it took for them to signal is compared to the desired duration to determine the subject's time perception.
In this test the subject observes a duration between stimuli and is asked to reproduce this duration. This is similar to the duration production task, but instead of being told a desired duration they observe the duration first. Their reproduced duration can be compared to the original duration to determine the subject's time perception.
In this test the subject observes two different durations and is asked to choose which one felt faster. Their choice can then indicate if their time became distorted while observing either duration.
The duration estimation is one of the simpler methods to use. There was a great year long quantified self experiment based around this method. The experimenter tried doing a new activity every day for a year and estimating how long he did that task. He later compared this to the video recordings of himself doing the event to discover how his time distorted. He discovered that over the course of the year he felt like he had experienced 14hrs more than the time he actually spent doing the activities. The duration production method is used by a simple android app that makes you try to guess when a certain amount of time has passed. TicTocTrac was initially designed to use duration estimation, but we decided to move to duration production for ease of use. This allowed the user to decide when they wanted to do a test and simply tap the watch to mark the end of the test.
In addition to the time perception measurements, TicTocTrac also keeps track of when you check the time. We know that when we are running late or bored in class we tend to check the watch maybe even several times a minute! We hope this data will show some great trends correlating with time perception.
Please check out the rest of our site to learn about our experience with designing a device, TicTocTrac, to track time perception. TicTocTrac is completely open sourced so you can build your own or improve on the design! The site also is fully functional allowing you to upload data about your time perception and view it compared to other days. If you have any questions or comments, give us a shout!
Senior (2012) Electrical & Computer Engineer at Cornell University. A hacker/maker always working on several new projects at once with a particular interest in the Quanitifed Self movement.
Senior (2012) Electrical and Computer Engineer at Cornell University interested in awesome electronics, wicked wristwatches, and 3D Printing.