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The thing with time

During the night the first snow of the season fell over Bern and Mariah Carey is slowly creeping up the charts. Without a doubt, we are heading towards Christmas. Or is Christmas getting closer? That corresponds to the question Claudia Hammond (2012) asks the readers in her book “Time Warped”. If the meeting on Wednesday must be moved two days forward, when is the meeting? There are two different but equally correct answers to this question. It depends on a person’s view of the future and the perception of time itself. If you arrive in the office on Monday for the scheduled meeting, you see time in a permanent flow. Therefore, the future is an event which moves towards you. If you find yourself at the office on Friday, you perceive yourself in motion through a stationary timeline. You are moving towards the future. This thought experiment is just one example of how different we deal with the concept of “time”.

Our understanding of time is shaped by many aspects. On the one hand, culture plays an important role in how we imagine time. In our western Society time is often visualized as a line with past events on the left end, the present in the middle, and future events on the right end. This picture is also used in the English language. We look forward to something in the future and look back at past events that are behind us. These horizontal metaphors are also used in Mandarin. But unlike in the English language, there are also a lot of vertical metaphors in Mandarin, such as “shàng (‘‘up”) and xià (‘‘down”) who are used to talk about the order of events. Earlier events are “up”, and later events are said to be “down”. This may be the reason or origin of the fact that Mandarin speakers are more likely to visualize time as a vertical line with the past on top and the future on the bottom (Boroditsky, Fuhrman & McCormick, 2011).

But we not only visualize and talk about time in different ways, our perception of time also differs depending on the person. Children with ADHD perceive time differently than children without ADHD. They are less able to estimate how much time has really passed and answer a 12-second reproduction task earlier than their peers. Even if this is only the case in the millisecond range and more studies are needed, it seems that the time for children with ADHD is passing faster (Smith, Taylor, Warner Rogers, Newman, & Rubia, 2002). On the other hand, depressed people experience exactly the opposite. Even though they are able to accurately estimate the time, they seem to experience a slow passage of time on an individual level (Thönes, & Oberfeld, 2015).

One last aspect we should consider is the situation. People who survived a life-threatening event often report that time seems to have moved in slow motion. Could it be that such an intensely emotional moment enables us to speed up our inner clock and act faster than we normally do? Stetson, Matthew and Eagleman (2007) thought it was time to find an answer to this question and threw some people off a 31-meter tower. So, if you think this one time you participated in a study was bad, think again. Sadly, their dedication did not pay off. They found no evidence of increased temporal resolution even though participants retrospectively estimated their own fall to last 36% longer than others’ falls. They suggest that time-slowing is a function of recollection, not perception.

In summary, one can say that time is something very individual. We experience it differently, depending on where we were raised, who we are and in which situation we are currently in. And even if we might not be able to slow it down, we can still use it smartly. For example, by getting the Christmas presents early this year. Because in the end it doesn’t matter if Christmas is getting closer or we are heading towards it, you will have to get them anyway.

Bibliography :
  • Hammond, C. (2012). Time wrapped: unlocking the mysteries of time perception. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2011). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently?. Cognition118(1), 123-129.
  • Smith, A., Taylor, E., Warner Rogers, J., Newman, S., & Rubia, K. (2002). Evidence for a pure time perception deficit in children with ADHD. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 43(4), 529-542.
  • Stetson, C., Fiesta, M. P., & Eagleman, D. M. (2007). Does time really slow down during a frightening event?. PloS one, 2(12), e1295.
  • Thönes, S., & Oberfeld, D. (2015). Time perception in depression: A meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 175, 359-372.
Featured image :
  • Kia Abell. (2004). Clock. Retrieved from:

Author : Max Frutiger