Claudia Hammond - Time Warped, Our Minds Play Tricks on Us

As often happens at the IdeaFestival, we begin asking more questions than we can answer. Such is the case at this afternoon’s Time Warped session with Claudia Hammond.

BBC reporter and psychologist, Hammond has been mulling over the question of time-perception for quite a while (in real time). 

She opens today’s talk by describing what happened to Alan Johnston, a BBC journalist who was kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza for four months.

“When the gun was put to his head,” Hammond says, “time slowed down.”

Johnston had no watch or clock. He could not see the sun rise or fall. He began to contemplate the psychology of time.

We often hear how a moment can feel like an eternity. But this is not just a cliche— it’s real.

And even less extreme cases, Hammond reminds us, illustrate the point. A 30-minute lunch break with a friend will often feel rushed; if you’re spending that time waiting in line, it’s a different story.

Hammond is interested in the psychology of time. How does time FEEL? Our minds, she says, are vulnerable; time can play tricks on us.

Psychologists have shown ways that we can be manipulated.

In 2003, psychologists gave 50 people name tags and asked them to chat with others in the group. Afterwards, the subjects were asked to form pairs with the people they were getting along with. Then, the experimenter took half of the group aside, each person individually, and told them (falsely) that no one had selected them as a partner. The experimenters told the other half (falsely) that everyone had selected them as partner. Then, each person proceeded to work on a task individually.

The rejected group, perhaps not surprisingly, felt time pass more slowly. 

So emotional state has an effect on time-perception. Happy people perceive time moving faster. Depressed people feel time passing more slowly.

“We actively construct in our mind how much time is passing,” Hammond says. 

Emotions play into time-perception in another way; the experiences we find meaningful (as well as new experiences) resonate more deeply; we will feel time moving more slowly through those moments.

Are you paying attention?


Hope Reese @hope_reese