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Science Says That Technology Is Speeding Up Our Brains’ Perception of Time

It's not just you, this year went really fast.

FIONA MACDONALD
19 NOV 2015
 

Every year, it feels like time speeds up a little more. One day it's Easter and then before you know it, some high school friend's posting on Facebook about how there are only five more Fridays before Christmas (seriously, what the hell).

But it turns out it's not just another downside of getting older – a psychologist has found evidence that our constant use of technology is making our brains more efficient at processing information, and as a result is tricking us into thinking time is passing faster than it really is.

 

“I’ve found some indication that interacting with technology and technocentric societies has increased some type of pacemaker within us," said Aoife McLoughlin from James Cook University's Singapore campus. "While it might help us to work faster, it also makes us feel more pressured by time."

Even though our near-constant use of technology is a relatively new phenomenon, the speed at which time passes is something that people have been concerned about for centuries. As far back as the French Revolution, there are reports of individuals complaining about the pace of modern life.

But McLoughlin has found evidence that our perception of time is now speeding up even faster thanks to smartphones. Her research looked at groups of people who are always connected to technology and those who rarely use it, and compared how each perceived the passage of time.

She found that those who were always online or on their computers or smartphones overestimated the amount of time that had passed compared to those who rarely used technology. So while sitting in room, they'd think that an hour had passed when it had only been 50 minutes. That perception difference could make them feel stressed because they were more likely to feel like time was running out than their disconnected peers.

And it wasn't just those who used technology often – McLoughlin found that even people who read an advertisement for the latest iPad perceived time as passing more quickly than those who had read an excerpt from a non-technological novel. 

"It's almost as though we're trying to emulate the technology and be speedier and more efficient," McLoughlin told ScienceAlert. "It seems like there’s something about technology itself that primes us to increase that pacemaker inside of us that measures the passing of time."

The findings back up the frequently issued advice that we should all take time to detach from social media and the Internet each week in order to slow down that pacemaker.

“What I’m arguing is that there is a genuine quantifiable cognitive basis for this advice, rather than it simply being about taking a step back,” said McLoughlin. “It’s a scientific reason to stop and smell the roses.”

But before you freak out and throw your iPhone into the ocean for stealing all the precious time you have left, McLoughlin is now looking into whether this phenomenon is having any long-term positive or negative effects on our lives.

Other research has shown that technology use can help us process information more efficiently, and actually become faster at performing tasks, which could help us save time in the long run.

"On the positive side, a faster processing speed may be an advantage in many circumstances," said McLouhglin. But she's also investigating the long-term effects of this speed-up.

“I feel it would lead to an increase in time-stress, which has been linked to heart disease, among other things," she said. "High time-pressure is also significantly related to distress among both men and women, and is related to increased levels of depression in women who work outside of the home." 

So the good news is that time isn't actually speeding up, only our brains are. The bad news is that we're all too busy using technology to appreciate the extra time that buys us. Ah, the irony.

McLoughlin has currently submitted her results for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

James Cook University is a sponsor of ScienceAlert. Find out more about their research.

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