the psychology of time perception and narrative

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the psychology of time perception and narrative

422520977_055eee8cf3I’ve heard it said often: “This year has just flown by!” This statement is also sometimes followed by: “It feels like time itself is speeding up!”

As I’ve grown older I’ve been plagued by similar feelings and perceptions. In a twisted way, it has confirmed the correlation between the increase in ones age and the perception that time moves as a quicker pace.

I recently discovered that there is a field of psychology that focuses on the perception of time. While driving back from a client, there was a pscyhologist on a talk show who spoke in some detail about the psychology of time perception. Having spent some time studying the discipline, I had never come across the application t­o time perception. I first asked myself if time is even percieved? Is it not just experienced in the same manner by everyone? The name of the field implies that we experience an absolute as relative. Anyway, moving on …

The gist of the psychology of time perception is that we feel time moving quicker and the associated feeling of having less time in your day, week, month and year as a function of the significance, attention and focus we give to events we experience. So, in your first 5 years of life the majority of experiences are novel and we thus apportion significant levels of attention and focus on them. As life moves on and we get older, these same events and experience become familiar and we tend to give them less attention and sometimes lose sight that they even occur. The process of lessening this attention on events then constitutes a perceived increase in the speed of time.

If this is true, it makes some sense from a narrative perspective. When we construct our life stories we tend to construct them based on the significance of positive or negative experience e.g. my story might be that of a poor husband if my wife leaves me for another man. And so, the more significance, attention and focus we give certain events the more they infiltrate the dominant story we have of ourselves. The problem with this is that we tend to apportion much less attention and significance to the events that offer an alternative story to the dominant one we’ve formed.


The key here is tha we can choose the levels of significance and attention we give to events. This means that we have choice and charge over how we form our story as well as how we then perceive time. We don’t then have to be subject to the perception that time speeds up. What a relief.

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