They have felt like a lifetime, these past eight years. Not insomuch as they’ve been dragging or protracted as that, looking back, the time seems a thicker mass than those few years would normally build, and it’s not a dense thickness. It is as if I were looking back through a vast, well-lit tunnel of descending dandelion seeds—straining to see across a crowded hall of cool, smoky apparitions, snatching a glimpse, only here or there, of the door where I entered. In fact, in terms of chronology alone, the previous decade seems a rocket blast of years, swelling with a surplus of experience that appears beyond its capacity.

Our interpretation of experiences makes malleable the stretch of minutes, days, and years. Familiarity—rituals, routines, and schedules—has the effect of abbreviating subjective duration, whereas spontaneity and uncertainty may defer it. As each passing year grows increasingly similar, they seem to decrease in span. Similarly, in circumstances beyond control—either by individual choice, or by others’ intervention—what may be only a brief experience becomes perceptually distended. Whether or not we effort to exert agency in a given situation lends also to the perceived flow of time.

Episodes of violence often illustrate the subjectivity of time quite clearly. Descriptions of traumatic events frequently mention protracted chronologies that inaccurately reflect reality. I recall a motorcycle accident that seemed to defy physics by elongating mere seconds into what felt like many minutes. Victims of violent crime often express exceedingly lengthened experiences that similarly mismatch the actual passage of time. In some cases this perceptual flaw stems from the extremely unexpected, unfamiliar circumstance itself. Each present instant is intensely stressful and must be processed anew. We have not yet cataloged the points of reference to guide us through the current dilemma. The auto-pilot is disabled. Thus, the process of navigating this particular series of events is dramatically elongated as we assimilate novel experiences.

Incidents of malevolence offer a somewhat contrasting analysis. For in these events, experience and prior witness, rather than unfamiliarity, are the impetus of the augmentation. Knowing what one may of the results of violence or disaster, the agent in dismay predicts a deleterious outcome. If the situation remains, for whatever reason, unalterable, then the victim, more or less consciously, intuits the passage of time at greater length, to the effect of staving off the envisioned hazard.

In either context it is the external situation that largely motivates inaccurately lengthy time perception. Such also is the case in situations of perceived expedience.

It is often heard that as we age, the years pass by with increasingly ferocious pace. Decades become inextricably melded together in what seems an indistinct fog of unknown, but noticeably brief, duration. For this we can blame, to some extent, the habituation of daily adult life. While doubtless each new dawn presents fresh, unknown interactions with the world, the longer one has walked the earth, the fewer are the novelties that it awards. This results in an unimaginably flexible library of individual realities that one constantly peruses while navigating through experience. Accordingly, despite the relative uniqueness of an event—of an entire day, month, or year for that matter—there is likely to be an appropriately related set of circumstances in the annals of memory to aid its successful negotiation. As we call upon these fragments of memory, our perception of the time it takes to proceed through real, physical events is consequently diminished. The more comprehensive our registers become, the more quickly we can surmount the obstacles of daily interaction.

We can also take a much more active and deliberate approach to “time management.” These strategies are largely motivated by our overarching perspective of time and our interpretations of the experiences within it. Some who ruminate over the malignance of past events may evaluate the present in its relation. If the current moment is more amenable, then the perception of time might be slowed, in effect prolonging the instance in an effort to placate the harms of the past. Others whose past is regarded more favorably make similar determinations, comparing the “now” to the “then,” and affecting the passage of time thusly.

Still others swim with the current. Present-fatalistic individuals tend to attribute control to an agent or agents beyond themselves (Shores and Scott). Within this landscape, all experiences are thought to be the exerted will of some external force. All that one can do is be continually subject to whatever may happen. Thus the present-fatalist simply moves along a predetermined course, waiting, as it were. Time duration is, as expected, protracted. The present-hedonist is the counterpart to the latter. They assume an “indulgent, risk-taking, ‘devil may care’” approach (Shores and Scott). For them, individual agency is the essence of life itself. Time streaks by feverishly when one is perpetually driven to the pleasures of the instant.

Aiming toward the future may offer the most congenial sense of time: “having a future time perspective is tantamount to…high achievement” (Shores and Scott). When oriented toward goals, ambitions, preventions, and preparations, individuals tend to invoke a broad continuum of time senses. They elicit a vast measure of time and experience in the endeavor to affect the outcome of the future. The “futurist” may call upon past experience to lend advice to the prevailing situation while also weighing its impact on what will eventually come to pass. In a way, they balance themselves on a subjectively temporal plane, sliding to the most beneficial and appropriate increment while always looking to the consequence of their actions. Time, for the “futurist,” strides along much as the world around them. While they, as anyone else, may, at any given pause, be out of step chronologically, they are most often congruent with the relative timescale of their particular atmosphere.

The passing of time, that most orderly, infallible mechanism—one of the few things assumed to be truly universal, stable, reliable—is often experienced as an un-resting flux. It draws itself out like a viscous extenuation of taffy from a faucet, or fools our eyes, ears, and minds as a blur of highway mile-markers passing by to form a continuous white streak of history against the barely moving landscape. But it never drops tempo. It’s been a trustworthy metronome since the sun first yawned itself to work. It is one’s perceptions, and often preoccupations, that instill time with the wavering digressions that are so innate in human nature. We seek to guide our present by the aftertaste of our past. If what lingers in our minds is bitter, the sweetness of now may be extended. However, when our lips are pursed by the rancor of the moment, our perception may be to extenuate each acrid second. Time, as we know it, is an invention of the human intellect. It is, therefore, built upon and subject to the myriad nuances of human nature. The only qualitative, quantifiable measures of time we know are its beginning, and its end. The prior marks the outset of perception. The latter, we often never see in advance, and are likely unaware once it has passed.

For more:

Pan, Yi, and Qian-Ying Luo. “Working Memory Modulates the Perception of Time.” Psychonomic bulletin & review 19.1 (2012): 46-51. ProQuest. Web. 3 July 2015.

Shores, Kindal, and David Scott. “The Relationship of Individual Time Perspective and Recreation Experience Preferences.” Journal of Leisure Research 39.1 (2007): 28-59. ProQuest. Web. 20 Jun 2015.

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