The Experience of Passage of Time: The Latest Findings

Clocks and watches appear to structure everyday life. We wake up to alarms and coordinate actions according to the general idea that physical time is constant and measurable. However,  how many times have we spoken about the passage of time in subjective language? “Wow. Time is flying by” or “time could not be moving any slower” are just two examples of when we refer to time passing during pleasant or boring activities, respectively. Interestingly, although ongoing physical time is present, how we experience time (or perceive its passage) does not always correspond with the former. 

In today’s post, we explore the different aspects concerning the experience of the passage of time and what implications it holds.

What influences how we experience the passage of time?

According to previous studies exploring the subjective passage of time, different factors could have an impact:

  • The current activity and its hedonic value, including any attentional demands placed on the individual 
  • The emotional state and degree of anxiety or fear, as well as expectations
  • The recall of experiences and the most important contextual factors with a specific interval
  • Beliefs about time 

Yet, beyond these elements, low-level stimulus features may also play a role. There have been extensive observations of their effects on time duration judgments, so modulation of the subjective passage of time is possible.  

Just recently, a scientific report published in Nature investigated whether and how the properties of a simple visual stimulus (a field of moving dots) during a supra-second time interval (of 10-30 seconds) can influence the subjective experience of the passage of time. It is worth mentioning that the stimulus was a “starfield”—a randomly distributed accumulation of filled colored dots (so-called “stars”) that continuously moved radially from the middle of the screen to the sides through the stimulus interval duration. 

Could low-level features of a visual stimulus modulate how we experience the passage of time?

The possibility exists.

As the study mentioned above highlights in its Discussion, researchers reported how faster and denser starfields (see above) were perceived to have a quicker passage of time. When considered within the context of duration judgments, the findings also reveal that different mechanisms may be in play. 

Of note, the study performed another similar experiment, keeping interval duration and task difficulty constant. This is important to highlight because it shows how these issues of interest, i.e., the experience of the passage of time and estimation of the duration of an interval, can be experimentally differentiated under laboratory conditions. At the same time, it suggests that other investigators could undertake research pursuits that explore the correlation between the (neuro)physiological and the experience of the passage of time. This could enhance care (clinical diagnostics and treatment) for individuals with mental conditions, including those with depressive syndromes or mild cognitive impairments. 

In Virtualtimes, we are analyzing and studying the sense and structure of time by generating a flow state with the use of VR gaming. The experience of time can be distorted due to certain psychopathological conditions. Funded by the European Union, this project aims to provide individuals with opportunities to re-experience and normalize a variant and distorted sense of time.