Science Has Figured Out Why Seconds Can Seem Like Hours

August 23, 2011

We've all experienced it: a brief moment that seems to stretch forever. It could be a high school test, a meeting at work, or a romantic comedy, which subjectively take approximately five millennia to end. But it happens to all of us, and science wasn't sure why. Until now.

It's worth noting that, unlike everything else, there isn't a “time sense” in the brain. Even those guys you hear about who get into an accident and act like it's still 1985 still can feel the passing of seconds. It's just not centrally located anywhere. That's because different channels in your brain are “tuned” to different lengths of time. It's how, say, an athlete can have split-second timing.

So, why does something boring take forever while something fun doesn't last nearly long enough? The researchers at the University of Bradford tested it out by bombarding volunteers with one hundred flashes or beeps. Yes, they annoyed them. Then they gave them another flash, or beep, and asked them how long it lasted.

Turns out, the closer that final flash was to the flashes before it, the more wrong they were about how long it took. Researchers theorize that this is because the channels got “fatigued,” just like any sort of the same stimulus over and over again will wear you out. The interminable seconds come in because we actively construct the world around us in our brains through seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. So, as your brain becomes “fatigued” and doesn't want to do something anymore...the longer time stretches.

In short, time drags when something is boring or scary, and speeds up when you're distracted or enjoying yourself. Further proof that life isn't fair.

Photo: Sarah K. Lee/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images