How fast do you experience time in your mind?
Since it is impossible to conceive of a time without change, it is reasonable to expect a relationship between our time experience and the way we perceive change. The speed of time that we experience has to do with the rate of which we see change. The best way to illustrate that relationship is by using the video camera analogy.
If you own one of the latest iPhone or Android smartphones, you might have noticed a video recording feature called ‘Slo-Mo’ mode. It is usually used to capture fast action sports or racing scenes and renders them in slow motion. In the normal video mode, a scene is often recorded at a speed of 30 frames per second (fps), but with the Slo-Mo mode, the latest models now boast cameras that are fast enough to capture videos at a recording speed of 240 fps. If you switch your smartphone to that high-speed recording mode and capture a quick action scene at 240 fps, you will notice that when the scene is later replayed at the usual rate of 30 fps, it will appear in slow motion, exactly as if time had slowed down. The reason for that slow motion effect is that, when filming at 240 fps, every second will contain 240 frames which will be spread over 8 seconds when they replayed at the standard speed of 30 fps. Therefore, every second that is captured at the fast recording speed will appear 8 times longer and time will seem to be running slowly.
This is somehow similar to what goes on inside our brains, but of course to a much lesser extent. Let us assume that we perceive the world at an average speed of 10 mental snapshots per second. Every time our brain captures 10 pictures, it believes that one second has elapsed. Now imagine that your brain’s processing speed is suddenly given a boost, say when you experience a life-threatening situation or from a dose of drug stimulants such as LSD or amphetamine drugs (speed), which causes a surge in brain electrical activity and allows the mind to start capturing 20 snapshots per second. Under normal circumstances, 20 photographs would have taken two seconds to record at the brain’s normal recording speed of 10 fps. When those 20 pictures are processed, the brain assumes that they must have spanned a period of two seconds instead of the one ‘real’ second that was actually needed to record them. One second of ‘real’ time will contain 2-seconds worth of information and will, therefore, appear to have stretched as if time had passed slowly. Such experiences, as we shall see later in more detail, have been confirmed by people who take drugs that stimulate the brain.
The faster our brain is at processing sensory information, the more rapid mental snapshots flow in our mind, and the slower time appears to run. The speed at which we experience the flow of time is nothing but the speed of our thoughts.
The converse can also explain how time seems to fly in certain situations. In the 1920s, when movie making was still in its early days, silent films were recorded at a slow speed of 16 frames per second and had to be replayed at much higher frame rates to look continuous and real. This made the movie appear as if it was running in fast-forward mode. Charlie Chaplin style movies are a perfect case in point; everything moves literally faster than normal as if time was running fast. This analogy helps us understand what goes on in the brain when it records fewer mental snapshots per second, say 5 fps instead of the standard 10 fps, for the sake of demonstration. This means it will need two seconds to capture the 10 snapshots it typically catches in one second. When those 10 pictures are processed, the brain assumes that the two seconds it took to obtain them is just one second. At that rate, two minutes will seem like just one minute and the day will be over before you know it. The slower your brain is in processing sensory information, the faster time appears to run. This seemingly inverse relationship is important to understand why we sometimes experience time as speeding up or slowing down.
To measure how fast time runs inside your brain, check out this FREE Online Speed of Time Test.
To learn more about how we experience time and ways to slow it down, check out “The Power of Time Perception.”