A new study led by the Liverpool John Moores University has found that our sense of how quickly or slowly time is passing is partly structured by changes in our bodies. More specifically, the experts have shown that greater activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (SNS), characterized by increased heart rate and electricity conductance, had a “small, but significant” effect on the feeling of time passing faster.
The scientists asked 67 participants to complete a normal day’s activities while wearing sensors measuring how their SNS was behaving, including a heart rate monitor and a skin sensor tracking electricity conductance caused by the activity of the sweat glands. The participants had to provide an hourly report regarding how fast or slow they felt time had passed.
“The results show, for the first time that increases in SNS activity can significantly speed up our subjective experience of time – being aroused really does make time pass more quickly,” explained study lead author Ruth Ogden, an experimental psychologist at Liverpool John Moores. “When an individual experiences a significant increase in heart rate or skin conductance this can make time seem like it is passing up to ten per cent faster.”
According to the scientists, this relatively small effect may be due to the participants experiencing quite “normal” days. If they had been experiencing a more chaotic fluctuation of events, the effect would have likely been greater. “The work I have done in the lab using electric shocks and other aversive stimuli has shown much larger effects of SNS activity on time experience,” Dr. Ogden said.
In her view, such changes in time experience could have evolutionary benefits. “When we think about why humans would experience distortions to time, one idea is that there is some sort of evolutionary benefit to having a flexible timing system – think back to being a cave man, having “extra time” may have provided some survival advantage.”
“Assuming this evolutionary survival account is correct then it wouldn’t make sense to have a timing system that waxed and waned with every small change in arousal. Instead it would need to be a system which reacted to large changes – fight or flight. In our study, participants were mainly students going about their normal daily lives – there really weren’t that many life or death situations and maybe this limited the role of arousal in time experience.”
In future research, the scientists aim to test this hypothesis by using a virtual reality environment in which participants are exposed to a variety of virtual threats.
The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.