Tick Tock. Tick Tock. It feels like forever sitting in the waiting room. The eyes wander repeatedly through the room. Nothing going on, and yet you’ve been sitting in this chair for half an hour – and waiting. But a glance at the clock reveals that it has actually only been five minutes.
A weekend trip to the big city is a completely different story. Here a visit to the museum, there a piece of cake in the café and lots of sightseeing. And you are already on your way back home. Back home, it feels like it’s been a week since the journey started – not two days.
Event density influences sense of time
Why does time sometimes pass so differently? The answer is very simple, says Till Roenneberg, chronobiologist at the Munich Institute for Medical Psychology. “Because we don’t perceive time.” The brain only processes new and important events. It then uses the density of these experiences to estimate a period of time. “The denser the set of events, the faster time elapses while I’m experiencing it.” And the longer the brain experiences the same period of time in retrospect. The reason: “So much happened during this period that we imagined it must have been a lot of days,” says Roenneberg.
In the waiting room, on the other hand, the frequency of events is usually very low. So time goes by slowly. Since, in retrospect, hardly anything happened during this waiting period, the brain sometimes cannot even save this period. “That’s why you often can’t remember those boring hours,” says the biologist.
Brain can’t measure time
The fact that the brain cannot measure time – i.e. cannot say exactly when five minutes have passed – is natural. The brain simply has no reason for it, explains Roenneberg. “There is absolutely no biological explanation or need for measuring linear time.” The brain only needs linear timekeeping to coordinate our perception and movement sequences. But that is more likely to be the case in the millisecond range.
More important for living beings, on the other hand, is the measurement of cyclic time, which is determined by the rotation of the earth around itself and around the sun. For example, day and night or the seasons run in cycles. These then specify, for example, when it is time to get up in the morning or when a hedgehog should hibernate. The theoretical concept of an hour or a minute, on the other hand, is completely irrelevant for nature, says Roenneberg.
Get out of the comfort zone
The way we process time has a powerful impact on our quality of life. After all, if you maintain the same everyday life every day for years, your brain will hardly be confronted with new events. “The everyday life of an office worker becomes more and more boring the better he has it under control, because it becomes routine,” says Roenneberg. At retirement age, when it is no longer even necessary to leave the house every day, this effect becomes even stronger. A single day hardly seems to go by. “But every Christmas I have the feeling that it was just Easter.” In this case, that also means that looking back, life can feel short – and in the worst case, many things can no longer be remembered.
In childhood, on the other hand, the opposite is often the case: “As children, we have a density of important events,” he says. So we often remember this time as longer and more exciting than other periods of the same length from the past.
Above all, one thing can be deduced from this: A person must regularly venture out of their comfort zone and the routine of everyday life and face new experiences again and again in order to lead a – at least felt – long, eventful and memorable life.