Subjective time, or the tourist illusion

by on May 4, 2004 at 6:31 am in Science | Permalink

When you are driving to a new place, it feels longer to get there than to return. No, you are not crazy, this is a confirmed perceptual bias. When taking the route for the first time, you are engaged in an act of problem solving. Subjective time passes more slowly (this has been validated by various experiments). On the way back, you know the route (you hope). Subjective time then passes more quickly. Jay Ingram puts it this way: “When your mind is focused on something other than the passage of time, you are fooled into thinking that less time has passed.”

Similarly, if you do two identical tasks, and they take the same time, you will judge your first attempt as having taken longer. But if you change the background context, such as by putting the people in a different room, this illusion tends to vanish.

There is also strong evidence that time seems to go faster as you get older. (Do we leave the problem-solving mode as we age?) Say you are forty and you will live to eighty. According to one set of calculations, your life, as subjectively perceived, is already seventy-one percent over. This is the most disturbing scientific fact I have heard in a long time. Your last twenty years will feel like no more than thirteen percent of your life. Another set of equations, harder to confirm, puts the age of seventeen and a half (!) as the midpoint of your subjectively experienced life. Occasionally patients with extreme brain damage will experience time as passing very very rapidly; the internal clock of one man seemed to be set at about four times regular speed.

For more information on these experiments, see Jay Ingram’s The Velocity of Honey.

Many scientists are hard at work trying to overcome aging; others are more pessimistic about how long we can live. But perhaps markets will look to another solution altogether. Why not also slow down subjectively perceived time? Might this be easier than stopping aging itself? Would it be nearly as good? In the meantime, what can you do to make your life feel longer?

OK, so here is the economists’ question: what is your marginal rate of substitution for real time vs. perceived time? Would you rather have one year that felt like two, or two years that felt like one?

My personal preferences tend toward objective time. Put aside family issues and matching what one’s partner or family does. I am curious about how history will run its course, how music will evolve, and which movies will come out. And what about the theory of quantum gravity? For this you need objective time more than subjectively perceived time. It’s worth a great deal to me just to get this information injected into my brain, even if I only receive a short extension of my life.

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