Whether time moves fast or slow is not determined by the tick of a clock, but by our state of mind. Pain prolongs the seconds to punishing hours. Joy seduces the hours to fly-by. Stress stretches the minutes. We all know stories of how in a crisis the events unfold in slow motion.
Time distortion is natural. It is governed by our individual time machines. A person’s time machine is not an HG Wells’ contraption, but the moving cogs in the brain that adjust our perception of time.
In our daily lives we psychologically calculate how different situations will affect us; are they friends or foes? We do this for survival. Our brain’s assignment is to process incoming information for threats and manage the energy or intensity of our response.
Life demands energy. Personal actions are mentally measured by the time and effort estimated for the job. The amount of minutes or years needed is a measure of energy.
Our brains compute the resources starting with on our sensory baseline. Some people have sensitivities that idle faster; their inherent stress is higher. We have various filters of security so some need more defensive power, and still others have past experiences that accentuate worries. With these variables, the mind assesses the demands of the moment.
The brain calculates, “This task will cost this amount of energy.” Depending on the assessment, the body prepares for a longer or shorter assignment. If there is more tension, the inner clock slows and time lengthens. This deceleration in the perception of time permits a compensatory acceleration in thoughts of survival. However, it also makes the job feel longer.
This is where the personal time machines vary. The calibration of our time machines is instilled in childhood. (Author’s note: As a pediatrician my answers to all questions regardless of the context will have something to do with security, infancy, breastfeeding and iron.)
Parents set the emotional workings of the internal clock by how they respond to their child’s stresses. If they react to the biological needs of the infant, the baby relaxes. This instruction of brain cells and neural synapsis becomes the chronological master. If the expressive response of the parent calms, the biological mediators in the neural pathways conform to that comfort.
Instead, if the parent for whatever reason misgauges the needs and fails to match their response appropriately at the right time, in the right way and for the right duration, the child develops a higher tendency for anxiety. Therefore, with any little life bump, the time machine slows down.
Fast forward to a 16 year old. The command goes out, “clean your room” (there may be caveats like “if you can find it”). Depending upon the time machine calibrated by the parents reaction to the infant’s stress, the teen will either start the work or not. If the time tune up is right, they begin, not because of the threat of being grounded, but because they know intuitively that it won’t take long. Their inner time is not stretched by nervousness. The brain says, “this is cool, so it won’t take long.”
This innate chronometer influences even the smallest of tasks. If the daily or momentary stress runs high, the person will feel the time lengthened by the proportion of angst. The emotional multiplier contemplates the mere act of putting dirty socks in a hamper will take forever. The sensations erroneously imagine the hours it would take, so they drop the socks on the floor.
Therefore, to succeed we need to understand our emotional timepieces. If we are tense we slow seconds and inadvertently make things harder because we perceive they will take too much time.
So turn down the stress dial. Chill. Break big jobs into parts. Speed up time by inserting fun. Bring in outside calibration. Count “Mississippi-one, Mississippi-two ." The body will have a new feeling about work.
Time is relative. We tune it with our time machines.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.