Anyone know anything about the neuroscience of time perception?


I've become mildly obsessed over the past few months with slowing down subjective time, in the interest of squeezing more fun and raw experience out of life.

I may flesh this out in one or more full-length posts later, but a few techniques I've found useful so far are:

  • do a lot of distinct things during each day

  • in particular, minimize time on screens (very easy to let that slip away from you)

  • don't hang out at home when I don't need to be (home → predictable and un-varied experiences → brain pays less attention)

  • minimize stimulant use in the late afternoon/evening (if I'm too energized, 7 or 10 pm feel earlier than they "should")

  • meditate or run (activities like these help snap you out of the default mode network and let you pay more attention to your moment-to-moment experience)

  • occasionally deliberately stop or change a habit, e.g. swap out the podcasts I listen to (so that later I can be reminded of an old podcast and go "wow... I haven't thought about that in ages")

However, I would love to know if there are specific neurological / hormonal / chemical pathways we know about that might be possible to hack somehow (or at least be mindful of).

Also, to help illuminate the neurological situation here, I'm wondering if there are any diseases / traumas people have experienced that have caused them to claim that time is moving faster/slower than it did previously.

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I also have a fascination with this, and studied Neuroscience in my undergrad!

I recall a segment from an episode of Radiolab where Neuroscientist David Eagleman talks about the perception of time slowing down when you're falling. 

I also recall reading an essay from Oliver Sack's "River of Consciousness" that was about how people with Tourette's experience time slowed down so much so that they could catch a fly because it moves in their time. And I also vaguely recall reading that for people with Parkinson's, or maybe just older people, they estimate/perceive that time is moving slower than it is. 

Similar to you, I find that the feeling of slowing down time has to do with attention and creating distinct memories. It helps to have novelty, especially with travelling to new places that bring shared experiences with new people. Paying attention in order to write poetry puts me into the perfect space for slowing down time :)

Interesting about Tourette's! I'm not able to find any empirical confirmation of a relationship between Tourette's and reaction time, but I do see an association between ADHD and longer reaction times, with stimulant use lowering them to control levels.

(Incidentally: as a person with ADHD, this really just illustrates how multi-dimensional time perception is, though, as Filip Sondej below mentions. When I'm on stims, time might feel slower on a moment-to-moment basis - the opposite of how, late at night when I'm tired and have low alertness, music feels a lot faster. But I don't feel like stims make the entire day feel slower, when I'm looking back on it. In fact the opposite is often the case, since the entire point of them is to make it easier to focus on one activity for a long period of time - which means less variety in the day.)

OP, you might want to check out 'Research Summary: The Subjective Experience of Time' (Schukraft, 2020).

We can separate 3 things:

  • the feeling of how fast time is passing now
  • your estimate of how much time has passed in the past day or year for example
  • the actual amount of experiences that happened in the past day or year

I think those three are distinct things (even though they correlate). For example the feeling of the passage of time can be drastically altered with psychedelics - it's possible to feel that time is not passing at all. (Here is a nice video which lists spooky time-effects and speculates how are they produced). But even though that moment may feel like eternity, it's not that there's actually an infinite amount of experience happening.

As for the estimate of the time passed, as you and other commenters noted, it looks to be based on how much memories you have from some time period. So someone with dementia would probably estimate that much less time has passed recently, even if a lot of experiences actually happened.

It's nice to have good memories, but I think what ultimately matters are the actual experiences and their valence and intensity (even if you forget them later).

Still, the things you list sound cool, so thanks for reminding me to do them :)

My first thought was also David Eagleman (How to Slow Down Time) but really most of his lectures and ted/google talks are fascinating, even those outside time perception.

This paper came out today and may be relevant as well, The neural bases for timing of durations at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41583-022-00623-3

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