Why does time
go so slowly when you're BORED? Thanks. - A Curious College Student
A question about
time! Such a good question. Incredibly frequently asked - and
a perfect way to inaugurate a new special feature of prettyfedup.com
- Made Up Answers to Your Scientific Questions! So let's make
up an answer for you and hopefully hold that boredom at bay for at
least a couple of minutes. And if the answer bores you - remember
Since we are going
to pretend this is a scientific question, let's start with a quote
from a famous scientist to get things rolling, shall we?
As you may
know, Einstein is reported to have said something like 'When a
man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute.
But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer
than any hour. That's relativity.'
Actually, it's not
relativity, it's biology. Your body measures the length of one event
compared to another by how much processing of sensory input you are
doing. When you are doing a lot of sensory processing, time goes
slowly or things seem to take a long time. When you are doing less sensory
processing, time goes quickly or things seem to take a short time.
This is easiest
to understand by example. When you are on the hot stove Einstein was
talking about, you are doing an incredible amount of sensory processing
in a short time. Those 'goddamn this is hot pain neurons are
the Ferraris of the chemical messenger world and they take off when
you get on that hot surface and they race up to your Operational Brain
so fucking fast, it doesn't have time to put on a bathrobe before 40,000
of the super-charged Ferraris have zoomed up to its door screaming 'It's
Hot, It's Hot, Goddamn It's Hot!' Your Operational Brain got a lot of
messages. A lot of messages feels like a long time.
On the other hand,
when you are talking to that pretty girl, your brain's default setting
is to get mesmerized by her face, become addicted to it like heroin,
and toss all sensory processing to the wind like so much useless
chaff, in favor of chasing the high that you get from looking at a beautiful
human Pregnancy Opportunity.
Let's say you're
out to dinner with her and the evening and conversation are going well.
You will not look around the room very often. You will not notice the
food. You will forget to ask for the check until long after you've finished
eating, and you will not even notice that you need to get up and go
pee until the spell is broken and it's time to leave. You also will
have no sense of time passing. You will look at your watch and say 'Eleven!
It seems like we just got here.' Even though you actually got there
at 6. Because your brain counts time passing by sensory processing.
You weren't doing any, so not much time seemed to pass.
If you are a nicely
scientific skeptical person, you might say, well weren't you doing a
lot of sensory processing around the girl's face. And the answer is,
you were doing some. But not as much as you might expect. You pick up
a general impression 'Pretty!' and key in a few choice sensory details.
But instead of processing a bunch of input rapidly, you savor the details
slowly, like a fine wine. And consequently, a lot of your attention
or processing load is taken up with processing your own internal thoughts.
Like 'god, she's really gorgeous.' Or perhaps thinking about
what she said and thinking 'god, i can really relate to that. i hardly
ever meet people i'm so comfortable with.' The sensory processing you
are doing is actually pretty limited. You are cueing in mostly to meaning
- 'she is responding! likes me!' or 'she is searching for silverware
and doesn't have any. Must secure some!' The majority of your activity
is not hardcore sensory processing.
When you are focused
on your own internal thoughts, as when you daydream, you tend to lose
track of time. When you meditate and focus inward, you tend to lose
track of time. When you sleep, an activity which has as its major
component that you stop processing outside sensory input, you have no
sense of time.
If you have a bad
or restless night and you wake up frequently, you are basically periodically
checking in for some sensory processing and it will seem like a 'long
When you are
bored, like in a bad college lecture, one of the things you are
experiencing is a lack of interesting internal thoughts to process -
because the goddamn lecturer is so boring, he or she isn't stimulating
any! You want to die! And what you do, in an attempt to stave
off death due to lack of stimulation, is you check in with the sensory
world. In a boring 50 minute lecture, you might notice the fly in the
room, the newspapers other people brought, the dirt on the window, the
bad fluorescent lighting, the wart on the teacher's nose, the color
of your shoes, etc., etc. 50 or 60 times. You might check in with the
sensory world once a minute or more. This makes for a very long hour.
Too many of these bad college lectures can bring you pretty near death
as your brain desperately tries to send you to sleep in the hopes of
escaping into a more interesting and restful internal world. Sometimes
you can get lucky and find some sensory detail that changes a bit to
catch your interest. Like an ant, trying to pick up an opened packet
of Sweet'n'Low and carry it on its back to some thicket of Sweet'n'Low
craving ant colleagues. An industrious ant can be a lot more interesting
than a college professor. And once you tune into that specific scene,
you will stop processing all the other extraneous sensory details in
the environment and the time will go by a bit more quickly.
This is why time
goes slowly in childhood and ever more quickly as you get older.
When you're a kid, most of the sensory input you get from the world
is new to you - and you process it thoroughly. Neurons vigorously fire
and march around bringing information to your Operational Brain that
is closely analyzed and categorized and associated with emotion and
consequences and various other things as your Operational Brain learns
about the world you've found yourself in.
On the other hand,
as you get older, your brain gets more efficient, and instead
of sending 50 messengers to your Operational Brain to give it all the
information they have gathered on the characteristics of the common
house cat - 2 messengers stroll up to the Operational Brain and lazily
announce - Cat. If there's something a bit unusual about the cat, they'll
muster up another messenger or two to say 'Cat. Black. Big!' But that's
You just don't
do as much sensory processing as you get older and you do less and
less of it as you become more and more familiar with your world. For
example, the first time you make the 5 hour drive to Yosemite, it seems
really long. That's because you've never driven it and your brain is
busy noting landmarks and the terrain and the scenery and so on. It's
processing a mental map of the route. By the time you've driven there
7 times, you can do it in your sleep and the trip seems like nothing.
You can spend the whole time daydreaming.
This is why you
can lose time in your car and drive right past your exit without
realizing it. You know the route and you simply stop processing the
sensory details even though they're right in front of you. You didn't
even realize the time was passing.
On the other hand,
when you're under environmental stress and input is important, you can
start processing like a motherfucker and time will slow way the hell
down. Let's say you are a pedestrian and you notice that your
pedestrian self is about to get mowed over by a jeep (as happened
to me once), all of a sudden your sensory neurons will say 'whoah fuck!'
and as many of them as possible will scoot up to your Operational Brain
saying 'we're about to get run over!' And you can often process
a pretty large number of sensory details quite clearly in the 5 seconds
between the time you see the jeep bearing down on you and the time you
get plowed into.
On the other hand,
if you are walking down a crowded street and someone near you grabs
someone else, knocks them down, shoots them, takes something
from them and runs, you will often try to tell the police later - 'It
happened so fast.' What you mean is that you didn't process any
sensory information about it. Because your brain is set to ask itself
this question about danger first 'Is it happening to me?' If
not, it next asks itself, how can I make sure it continues to leave
me alone? And it concerns itself primarily with ducking, dodging, running,
turning away or whatever seems reasonable at the moment. You might have
a very clear memory of the assault - but it will consist of a vivid
picture of the concrete sidewalk. Because your brain was very concerned
about that sidewalk and its characteristics as soon as it got a load
of that gun, which it did a lot quicker than you were aware, since it
strongly considered hurling you toward that very sidewalk so you wouldn't
get shot. Although eyewitnesses to crimes are considered valuable in
the criminal justice system, they aren't very reliable - because your
brain considers nothing more stupid than witnessing a crime when
you could be fucking protecting yourself from it. It doesn't give a
fuck what what the guy looked like - it wants to know how hard you're
going to hit the concrete. And so your time as a witness will have flown
If you accidentally
find yourself having a job, you will notice that some days go by fast
- and some days crawl by really slowly. The slow days are when you have
checked in with the outer world many times, as will often happen when
the work you are doing isn't very engaging to your brain. On the other
hand, even a stressful day can go by really quickly if you are totally
focused on your task. If you have something difficult and absorbing
to do, you will tend to concentrate on it to the exclusion of distracting
When you are
in the zone, as for example, when you are surfing, time will have
curious properties. It will be elongated almost to the point of timelessness,
so that time seems both full and rich, yet smooth and instantaneous.
Time spent surfing will seem both endless and fleeting (if you're
good, that is). This is because this kind of activity requires an incredible
amount of sensory processing, as you need to stay instantaneously aware
of all elements of your environment, yet the kind of processing required
is very similar to what your brain uses for internal processing. Your
brain uses a synched-up kind of processing for in the zone type processing,
partly to cut down on the load on its CPU. It's a very efficient, and
even restful form of sensory processing. (Indulge in it often!)
provide interesting time-messing properties. Since it stimulates
neural activity or perhaps just drops some of the normal barriers to
it, you can find yourself immersed in some very time stretching experiences
on dope. For example, let's say you get yourself to a grocery store
to soothe your munchies, when you inadvertently stumble into the Pepperidge
Farm section of the cookie aisle. As your sensory neurons fire away
furiously, you can find yourself adrift in a gigantic ocean of time
as you immerse yourself in a full sensory contemplation of Mint Milano,
Bordeaux and Geneva cookies. It can seem like days, as you are unable
to tear yourself away from a thorough sensory evaluation of those little
bags of cookies. On the other hand, on dope you can lose time and become
quite disoriented as you drift into some major internal processing in
which you consider the possibility that the entire universe is a gigantic
spider web except that the silken strands are invisible even though
they are what is holding the stars together. And this can seem like
a profound and important thought - to the extent that when you wake
up from it, you have no idea what day it is any more. Did you spend
a week in spider-web land, is it still Wednesday? And so on. All
because your body uses sensory processing to establish time length.
By the way, sensory
processing is by and large harder and more stressful on your body than
internal processing. Which is partly why your body tries to minimize
it over time. The upshot of this is that time spent in serious daydreaming
where you tune the world out, or meditating if constant sexual
fantasizing doesn't happen to be your style - will lengthen your
life, improve your health and spruce up that sagging skin tone!
All right, enough
fucking made up scientific info. Now, since you are bored - we
are going to give you a fun, interactive activity.
Activity! - Okay, now that you know the principle - go around
and search out examples for yourself. Instead of being bored in your
college class, entertain yourself by thinking of all kinds of different
experiences and whether they go fast or slow or how much processing
they entail. Vacation in New York City - fast or slow? First
kiss - fast or slow? Does the principle hold true - or does
Think on this fascinating
topic deeply and thoroughly. Your brain loves this kind of shit, it
just loves interactive activities like this. A lot more than it loves
a bad explanation of standard deviation in your statistics class. And
your brain will reward you by totally tuning out that boring lecture
and giving you back that otherwise lost hour of your life!
Just another life
enhancement courtesy of prettyfedup.com.....