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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 August 2007, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Turn back the clock
Clocks at BBC, Bush House

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Healthy eating, exercise, security - these are just some of the means to living a longer life, we are often told. But what about our perceptions of time itself? A new book argues that by "slowing down" time we can extend our lives further.

Enjoy your summer holiday - while it lasts.

One of the unwritten rules of being a fully fledged member of the taxpaying workforce is that the two weeks you've looked forward to all year will fly past as if it had only been a few days.

Yet when childhood holidays are recalled, they seemed to stretch out into eternity. Sure, they were longer. But it's no secret that with advancing years comes the sense that time is accelerating.

Yet it doesn't have to be like that, says Steve Taylor, who teaches courses on personal development at the University of Manchester. Clock time may be about minutes and hours, but Real Time is down to how we experience it, which differs from person to person depending on what we're doing.

Steve Taylor
Children are incredibly awake to the world around us, so time passes slowly for them
Steve Taylor
Author, Making Time
A child's day from 0900 to 1530 is like a 20-hour day for an adult, he says, and in his book Making Time he explains why.

In developing what he calls the perceptual theory, first put forward by American psychologist William James in the 19th Century, Taylor says time is related to how much "information" someone is taking in from the world around them.

"Children are experiencing everything for the first time, all their experiences are new. They also have an amazingly intense vision of the world, an amazing fresh perception. Children are incredibly awake to the world around us, so time passes slowly for them."

Information - not from books or the internet, but through perceptions of the world - stretches time and as people get older they have fewer new experiences, he says.

"There is less novelty in our life and you become used to the world and more familiar. You take in less information from the world around us and time is less stretched with information."

'In the zone'

A possible explanation is that the brain and its capacity to perceive time are affected by the units of information it is asked to process.

So the eight months Taylor once spent in Germany seemed like eight years, he says, because of the number of new experiences crammed in.

He also gives credence to the proportional theory, which is that as we get older, a year is a smaller part of our life as a whole, so seems to pass quicker.

It does if in a state of absorption, chatting to friends or watching an enjoyable film
But not always. Two weeks exploring the Andes, having new experiences, may seem longer
Source: Steve Taylor
Another factor which makes time relative, he says, is the way we can occasionally shift out of our normal consciousness, such as in an accident, when people often say time slowed down.

This shift to "slow motion" can also be achieved by top sportsmen. George Best and former basketball player Michael Jordan are among those to have remarked on how time seemed to slow down when they were "in the zone".

"I don't think it's a delusion," says Taylor. "Time isn't something real or something absolute, it's something created by our minds.

"Einstein showed in his theory of relativity that time is related to other factors. So it's not just an illusion, they [the sportsmen] are actually slowing down time. It's the same in accident situations, we shift out of our normal consciousness."

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods reportedly learnt a variation of tai-chi as a child
Mike Hall, a sports consultant and author of In Praise of Slow, has spent nearly 15 years learning how to use the discipline of tai-chi to "slow down" time while playing squash and golf.

"If the brain waves are in synch with the heart rhythms, this is the way the body moves into a state called 'the zone'. It's like playing in slow motion and you have gone beyond linear time."

Perception is brilliantly enhanced to the point where even the yellow dot on the squash ball can be seen during play, he says. Top footballers like Best and Paul Gascoigne had a sporting intelligence that was spontaneous and gave them an ability to see space in a different way, says Mr Hall, but it can also be trained.

If you can control time, it is no longer our enemy
Steve Taylor

Mr Taylor believes time is elastic, not solid, so a man on a three-hour plane journey can have a longer "psychological time" than the passenger next to him. And a man who dies at 40 can live a longer life than a man who dies at 80 if he has travelled around the world and had new experiences.

Western culture, unlike some indigenous peoples, presents a linear view of time, with human lives like a river running through the past, present and future, he says.

Hiro in Heroes
Hiro in the BBC's Heroes is able to stop time
It may be true that society has become more time-poor, as life has become more hectic, but humans have probably always experienced a speeding up of time as they get older, although this can be controlled.

"Make sure your life is as full of new experiences as possible. If you live a life that's full of routine, then time will always speed up but if you make an effort to travel to new environments and expose yourself to new situations, new challenges, even something simple like a new route to work, new interests, new hobbies, then this degree of newness slows down time."

Similarly, spending an evening in a "state of absorption" reading a book or watching a DVD will make the time pass quickly, as will a holiday spent on a beach or by a pool. But varying the activities will help stretch out the minutes and hours.

"We try to extend our lives by keeping fit and having a healthy diet, which is fine but it's also possible to lengthen our life by changing our experience of time and having new experiences and spending more time living in the present.

"We often feel threatened or negative towards things we can't control, helpless ... so if you can control time, it is no longer the enemy."

So summer holidays needn't pass so quickly. But you'll need to leave the pool and put the book down in order to stop it.

Making Time by Steve Taylor is published by Icon Books.

A selection of your comments appears below.

I once was involved in a road accident where time for me did indeed appear to slow down. I imagine that at times of imminent danger the brain instinctively reacts by speeding up its data processing of the senses. A response intended to increase the chances of survival. Our perception that time slows down is probably due to the fact that the brain has performed many more scans and therefore acquired more data per unit of time than relative to its normal state. Brain state is probably the key issue. People often report that time appears distorted for instance when day dreaming, hypnotised or meditating.
Richard Dunkling, London

As a child you have no responsibility. You enjoy your free time because you have no guilt that you could be doing one of the things on your endless to-do list, nor do you have the dread that in a short time it's back to work for another 12 months. A child tends to live for the moment and doesn't worry about how many days of the holiday are left. Instead of thinking about holidays in terms of how much time is left, we always think about how little time is left. For many adults their holiday is over after the first week, because then they start worrying that they're going home soon. Maybe if we started to look at the glass as half full, time wouldn't go so quickly.
Marie, Surry

Perception is our everything. So I suppose that our perception of time, and how fast it passes, is also down to personal variation. Very thought provoking article.
Andy, Bournemouth

I'm unconvinced by this. Firstly a lot of our perception of how quickly time passes is based on memories. We all think that in childhood time passes slowly, but how many of us sat and wrote these thoughts down at the time, or sat pondering them? None. Because there is no reference point in the future. The point about taking in information ties in with this. Everything when we were young was new so we have more memories from that time therefore it seemed to go on longer. Familiarity with a routine will make time seem to go more quickly, but, I think, not for the reasons above. It is far more to do with looking backwards and considering memories than it is about experiencing the present.
Phil, Reading, UK

An interesting article. I have given much consideration to 'proportional theory' and think it accounts towards how we perceive time as a whole as opposed to the time we are experiencing each day. I believe time is all about perception and especially two factors 'enjoyment' and 'fear'. The more we enjoy a task the quicker time passes by, in parallel the more we fear time is running out the quicker it passes. On the other hand the less we enjoy a task the more time drags.
Anthony M Gray, Bushey, Herts

When we go to work on Monday we start counting down to Friday, we cannot wait for our summer holidays and then when they arrive they have gone in a flash. I seem to have grown old overnight, where have all the years gone? When I was a child I had no perception of time, everything was new, everything was a challenge, all the fun disappears and we fall into a rut, exploring a new route to work becomes finding a faster route to work. We ought to slow down, take stock of the time that is left and enjoy it.
Roger Billam, Chesterfield,UK.

I think I prefer the metabolism theory. Animals with the highest metabolic rates seem to have the shortest lifespans; a mouse at one year as against a turtle at perhaps two hundred years. But at the end of day, I suggest, each feels that he has lived the equivalent time.
Geoff Leonard, Hornsby, NSW, Australia

Absolutely riveting; I have held similar "theories" akin to these thoughts but have not ever organised them into a structure with context as this article does. Excellent. Thank you
Roger, Southsea

Sounds like somebody has been reading Catch 22. A character in the book notices that time flies when you're having fun. Therefore, to have a 'long' life, you need to be bored for as much time as possible. He hates clay pigeon shooting, so that is all he does with his free time. By doing this he ensures he has a 'long' (but awful) life, as opposed to a 'short' (but great) life.
Rob, London

Absolute rubbish. This blurs the lines between perceiving time as passing slower or faster which I'm sure everyone has experienced and actually being able to control the passage of time. Also, he contradicts what many experience: doing mundane, routine tasks make the day appear longer not shorter!
David Rendall, Aberdeen

If this is the case, why does time pass so slowly when we're bored? And why does a one-week holiday flash past way quicker than one week at work would? I'm not convinced..
Rob, Letterkenny, Ireland

There are some good points here. It's such a shame it's spoiled by a very naive understanding of science. To say that special relativity denies the existence of time and that it is something created by our minds demonstrates a gross ignorance of Einstein's work. Saying that one can actually slow down time by using your mind is akin to telling yourself that sprouts taste like vanilla ice cream. It's a self-made delusion which you can convince yourself of, regardless of the cold, hard fact that the chemical composition of sprouts and ice cream are different and will therefore react differently with the taste buds on your tongue.
Simon Meadows, Gatwick, England

This article is superb, really gives you a lot to think about. It's funny how we want work time to speed up and other time like being with friends to slow down. I like the new experience theory. Maybe we just have to pay attention more and actively seek out detail. I'll have to give it a try.
Frank Kerrigan, Glasgow

Is it not just a case that in young people body metabolism is a lot faster and therefore time appears to move slower and in older people body metabolism has slowed down thus giving the illusion that time is actually passing faster
Martin Lee, Bournemouth UK

The older you get, the more you look back into the past. The path you made is dotted with highlights (and lowlights) and only those are remembered, making the time that has passed seem that much more compressed, thus shorter. So it's all a case of perspective. Living in the here and now is preferential, while still making future plans. To live in the past only reinforces the illusion that time passes quickly, which it does not. Life is short? No it's not, it's the longest thing you'll ever do!
Julian, Twickenham, UK

I'm 27 and no philosopher. But this is an interesting article. I feel that the more emphasis you give to time, the more real it is for you (when in fact there is no physical reality, it is fabricated), and therefore you feel the burden of 'passing time'. If you take psychological time out of your life and concentrate solely on the present, then you'll have all the 'time' in the world, and the deep seated contentment that goes hand in hand with deeper involvement in life. It is not just children who live in such a way...as an adult, the less you think and the more you just perceive means life seems to pass you by in slow motion. You don't just need to look for new experiences....you need a better relationship with what is in front of you, even if it is something you have seen many times before.
Carl, Birmingham, England

The explanations could have been more precise: this is talking about the perception of time by an individual. No-one ever actually slows time down - that would obviously affect everyone and everything, not just the person doing it.
Bob Gomersall, Cambridge

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