Anyone who has sat for hours in a waiting room understands that the passing of time is subjective, where time seems to ground to a halt accompanied only by the tick of a large wall clock. Compare this to how time passes when we are actively engaged in a pleasant task, what American Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls being in the “flow”. It is true (relatively speaking) that time flies when you’re having fun.
Evidence from neuroimaging studies indicates that a brain area located deep beneath the cerebral cortex, known as the basal ganglia – and in particular the putamen – is involved in acting as a pacemaker and internal clock.
Apart from our internal circadian rhythm that regulates our sleep and our waking time and repeats on every rotation of the earth, it is external stimuli that give us a sense of time passing. The contrast between day and night mark the passing of time and the things we that do such as going to work, eating and watching TV are all world experiences that help us keep track of the passing of time.
Brain areas involved in emotion regulation, such as the limbic system, likewise assert an important influence over our perception of time, which might explain why some people report time passing more quickly when they experience positive emotions and why a short spell in prison seems like a life sentence.
In the current pandemic climate, many people are experiencing heightened levels of stress or trauma, including feeling insecure about the future. Although we know that the future is uncertain, most of us like to think we at least have some control over it or that there will be continuity between the recent past, present, and short-term future. Relating to the future in this manner serves as an important temporal reference point that helps maintain our sense of time and allows us to orientate ourselves in the present. However, when we experience psychological stress and trauma, particularly when it relates to an uncertain future, the disorientation this causes can lead to increased activation in brain areas involved with both time perception and emotion processing, which can trigger an experience of time blindness.
Prolonged and continuous increased activation or over-activation of such brain areas can start to change how the brain processes neurological signals. This relates to the brain’s inherent capacity to reorganise neural networks – a principle known as brain plasticity. The process happens naturally with ageing but is also influenced by factors such as learning a new skill or psychological stress.
But changes in brain structure and function can work in both directions and what can be learned can also be unlearned.
Working from home can easily blur the day into just one long experience of being sat in front of a computer, so it is fundamental to break the day up into pieces that are easily recognizable and can help to keep track of time. Getting up at the same hour, engaging in some physical exercise at a set hour and taking breaks to eat at regular set intervals are all things that we can do to keep a good sense of time.
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