Time Dilation: How Meditation and Exercise Can Stretch Your Subjective Perception of Time

By Carlton Moeller

The way we perceive time can vary greatly depending on our situational context. Have you ever wondered why time seems to fly when you’re having fun, or why it seems to only plod along during the last 30 minutes of a boring lecture? The answer lies in the complicated pathways by which information travels through the brain. Neural correlations for the perception of time have been linked with the same areas in the hippocampus that keep track of our spatial location, according to a publication by Albert Tsao et al in 2018. 

How do different ways of relating to space, then, alter the way these signals are expressed? As it turns out, scientists are working to determine how people’s understanding of time changes as they use and relate to their bodies differently.   

Psychological studies have indicated that meditation influences the way that people perceive different categories of time’s passage. When compared to non-meditators, experienced meditators judge the duration of events to a similar degree of accuracy. However, a 2015 study conducted by Marc Wittmann et al found that meditators have a highly dilated sense of subjective time: hence why they reported that their previous week and month seemed to pass more slowly than those of the non-meditators. 

Other studies have explored the ways in which physical activity modulates the tempo of one’s internal clock. In particular, one study from the Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society found that our sense of time dilates during and after physical activity. In 2015, Kelly Jakubowiki measured this effect by recording the tempo of participants singing a familiar melody before and after strenuous physical activity.  They found that the tempo was significantly faster after the exercise. Therefore, the participants’ subjective experience of time was dilated: they felt as if more time passed between the beats of the song than actually did. Another study carried out by A.M Edwards and A. McCormick in 2017 asked participants to judge the duration of their exercise session. The study found no difference in the light or moderate exercise group. Interestingly, in the high intensity groups, time intervals were consistently perceived as being shorter than they were in reality. As early as 2009, R. Hugh Morton investigated how manipulating a clock placed in front of participants using a rowing machine caused changes in physical performance. The researchers manipulated the clock by either making it 10% faster or 10% slower. The only statistically significant effects of the clock manipulation appeared in male participants — males who were presented with the slower clock excercised  at their maximal effort 18% longer than those in the regular or sped up time group. This implies that the male participants didn’t just work 10% longer, as would have been predicted if they strictly followed the clock, but that they pushed it to nearly double what the clock alone suggested. Ultimately, the information and studies presented indicated that individuals do in fact comprehend time differently than how it passes and can act upon such a difference. 

This week, I challenge you to pay attention to the time. Not by looking at the clock every 30 seconds while there is a group presenting in your class, or glancing at your stopwatch between every set at the gym, but by taking into account how long you are spending doing the things you enjoy. How long did that Snapchat stay unopened because you were having a lively conversation in The Preserve? How many songs played while you were knitting a hat or doodling in your room?

The way time dilates for you may hold secrets to what your subconscious likes. Listen to your body.  

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