Emotions play a powerful role in distorting our time experience. Negative emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety, and sadness appear to slow down the passage of time so that we feel we must endure these feelings for longer than we actually do, making these negative feelings even worse than they really are. Is there a way to shorten the perceived duration of unpleasant feelings and prolong the duration of pleasant ones?
Over the last 10 years, researchers have started to systematically investigate the mechanisms involved in time distortions that occur in the presence of various emotions. In typical experiments participants are shown high-intensity pleasant images, such as erotic scenes, while other participants are shown high-intensity unpleasant images, such as a gruesome murder scene. Both sets of images are displayed for the same length of time, but those who watch the pleasant images report shorter durations, as if time was running fast, while those who see the unpleasant images report longer durations, as if time has slowed down.
Researchers have, similarly, investigated the effect of emotional sounds on time perception. In a 2007 study from Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives in Paris, four groups of sounds were used: (a) pleasant high-intensity sounds, e.g. erotic sounds, (b) pleasant low-intensity sounds, e.g. laughs, (c) unpleasant low-intensity sounds, e.g. sobs, and (d) unpleasant high-intensity sounds, e.g. a woman crying or wailing. There was also one group of neutral sounds, e.g. street noises. The results confirmed that emotionally unpleasant sounds were perceived to be longer than pleasant or neutral sounds. The rational explanation behind this effect is that we tend to focus more attention on negative emotions than on positive ones. This activates our central nervous system, boosts our brain’s information processing speed, and accelerates the mechanisms that support our brain’s internal clock. A faster ticking internal clock, as we know, leads to an expansion of time intervals, so it feels as if time is running slowly 67. So are there any counter-measures we can take to speed up time when we are feeling bad?
Researchers recently found that the stretching effect of time can be corrected by simply making a person feel that he is in control 68. In 2012, at the University of Illinois, Dr. Buetti and Dr. Lleras conducted a series of experiments with participants that were shown positive and negative images on a computer monitor and were requested to estimate the time duration of each image. As expected, the participants consistently over-estimated the duration of negative images, as if time slowed down and under-estimated the duration of positive ones, as if time flew. But then the researchers introduced the illusion of control by telling participants that they could press a button on the keyboard to increase the number of positive and decrease the number of negative images that appeared on the screen, if they felt the need. Behind the scenes, however, it was the researchers who were actually controlling the number of positive or negative images that they were seeing. For some participants, the researchers followed the participants’ wishes in order to give them the illusion that they were in control. But for others, they did the opposite, making the participants feel that they had no control at all over how often positive or negative images appeared. When the participants were later asked to estimate the duration of the images, the researchers noted that the lengthening or shortening of time intervals was more or less neutralized for the participants who had the illusion of control. The conclusion was that when participants were allowed to believe they were in control, the time expansion caused by their emotions was eliminated!
So what can we learn from this? In order to neutralize the time-stretching effect of fear, anger, anxiety, or sadness, you need to simply convince yourself that you are in control. This is essential if you want to shorten the amount of time in which you have to endure these negative feelings. To do that it might be helpful not to react right away to whatever is triggering your emotions. Breathe deeply for a few minutes and tell yourself this is only temporary. Look at the big picture. Find a way to release those negative emotions in a healthy way. Meditate, exercise, or just go for a walk. Whatever you need to do to take control and ti will be over in no time.
For more information about how our brains experience time and how to slow down time, please check ‘The Power of Time Perception: Control the Speed of Time to Make Every Second Count’ which is now available on:
To measure how fast time runs in your mind, check this new Online Speed of Time Test. You will receive a detailed report about how your personality affects your time experience!
References & Notes:
- Wittmann M. Moments in time. Front Integr Neurosci. 2011;5:66. doi:10.3389/fnint.2011.00066.
- Lloyd D. Neural correlates of temporality: default mode variability and temporal awareness. Conscious Cogn. 2012;21(2):695-703. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.02.016.
- Fraisse P. Perception and estimation of time. Annu Rev Psychol. 1984;35:1-36. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.35.1.1.
- Nagy E. Sharing the moment: the duration of embraces in humans. J Ethol. 2011;29(2):389-393. doi:10.1007/s10164-010-0260-y.