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Why does time go so slowly when you're BORED? Thanks. - A Curious College Student

A question about time! Such a good question. Incredibly frequently asked - and a perfect way to inaugurate a new special feature of - Made Up Answers to Your Scientific Questions! So let's make up an answer for you and hopefully hold that boredom at bay for at least a couple of minutes. And if the answer bores you - remember to skip!

Since we are going to pretend this is a scientific question, let's start with a quote from a famous scientist to get things rolling, shall we?

As you may know, Einstein is reported to have said something like 'When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than any hour. That's relativity.'

Actually, it's not relativity, it's biology. Your body measures the length of one event compared to another by how much processing of sensory input you are doing. When you are doing a lot of sensory processing, time goes slowly or things seem to take a long time. When you are doing less sensory processing, time goes quickly or things seem to take a short time.

This is easiest to understand by example. When you are on the hot stove Einstein was talking about, you are doing an incredible amount of sensory processing in a short time. Those 'goddamn this is hot pain neurons are the Ferraris of the chemical messenger world and they take off when you get on that hot surface and they race up to your Operational Brain so fucking fast, it doesn't have time to put on a bathrobe before 40,000 of the super-charged Ferraris have zoomed up to its door screaming 'It's Hot, It's Hot, Goddamn It's Hot!' Your Operational Brain got a lot of messages. A lot of messages feels like a long time.

On the other hand, when you are talking to that pretty girl, your brain's default setting is to get mesmerized by her face, become addicted to it like heroin, and toss all sensory processing to the wind like so much useless chaff, in favor of chasing the high that you get from looking at a beautiful human Pregnancy Opportunity.

Let's say you're out to dinner with her and the evening and conversation are going well. You will not look around the room very often. You will not notice the food. You will forget to ask for the check until long after you've finished eating, and you will not even notice that you need to get up and go pee until the spell is broken and it's time to leave. You also will have no sense of time passing. You will look at your watch and say 'Eleven! It seems like we just got here.' Even though you actually got there at 6. Because your brain counts time passing by sensory processing. You weren't doing any, so not much time seemed to pass.

If you are a nicely scientific skeptical person, you might say, well weren't you doing a lot of sensory processing around the girl's face. And the answer is, you were doing some. But not as much as you might expect. You pick up a general impression 'Pretty!' and key in a few choice sensory details. But instead of processing a bunch of input rapidly, you savor the details slowly, like a fine wine. And consequently, a lot of your attention or processing load is taken up with processing your own internal thoughts. Like 'god, she's really gorgeous.' Or perhaps thinking about what she said and thinking 'god, i can really relate to that. i hardly ever meet people i'm so comfortable with.' The sensory processing you are doing is actually pretty limited. You are cueing in mostly to meaning - 'she is responding! likes me!' or 'she is searching for silverware and doesn't have any. Must secure some!' The majority of your activity is not hardcore sensory processing.

When you are focused on your own internal thoughts, as when you daydream, you tend to lose track of time. When you meditate and focus inward, you tend to lose track of time. When you sleep, an activity which has as its major component that you stop processing outside sensory input, you have no sense of time.

If you have a bad or restless night and you wake up frequently, you are basically periodically checking in for some sensory processing and it will seem like a 'long night.'

When you are bored, like in a bad college lecture, one of the things you are experiencing is a lack of interesting internal thoughts to process - because the goddamn lecturer is so boring, he or she isn't stimulating any! You want to die! And what you do, in an attempt to stave off death due to lack of stimulation, is you check in with the sensory world. In a boring 50 minute lecture, you might notice the fly in the room, the newspapers other people brought, the dirt on the window, the bad fluorescent lighting, the wart on the teacher's nose, the color of your shoes, etc., etc. 50 or 60 times. You might check in with the sensory world once a minute or more. This makes for a very long hour. Too many of these bad college lectures can bring you pretty near death as your brain desperately tries to send you to sleep in the hopes of escaping into a more interesting and restful internal world. Sometimes you can get lucky and find some sensory detail that changes a bit to catch your interest. Like an ant, trying to pick up an opened packet of Sweet'n'Low and carry it on its back to some thicket of Sweet'n'Low craving ant colleagues. An industrious ant can be a lot more interesting than a college professor. And once you tune into that specific scene, you will stop processing all the other extraneous sensory details in the environment and the time will go by a bit more quickly.

This is why time goes slowly in childhood and ever more quickly as you get older. When you're a kid, most of the sensory input you get from the world is new to you - and you process it thoroughly. Neurons vigorously fire and march around bringing information to your Operational Brain that is closely analyzed and categorized and associated with emotion and consequences and various other things as your Operational Brain learns about the world you've found yourself in.

On the other hand, as you get older, your brain gets more efficient, and instead of sending 50 messengers to your Operational Brain to give it all the information they have gathered on the characteristics of the common house cat - 2 messengers stroll up to the Operational Brain and lazily announce - Cat. If there's something a bit unusual about the cat, they'll muster up another messenger or two to say 'Cat. Black. Big!' But that's about it.

You just don't do as much sensory processing as you get older and you do less and less of it as you become more and more familiar with your world. For example, the first time you make the 5 hour drive to Yosemite, it seems really long. That's because you've never driven it and your brain is busy noting landmarks and the terrain and the scenery and so on. It's processing a mental map of the route. By the time you've driven there 7 times, you can do it in your sleep and the trip seems like nothing. You can spend the whole time daydreaming.

This is why you can lose time in your car and drive right past your exit without realizing it. You know the route and you simply stop processing the sensory details even though they're right in front of you. You didn't even realize the time was passing.

On the other hand, when you're under environmental stress and input is important, you can start processing like a motherfucker and time will slow way the hell down. Let's say you are a pedestrian and you notice that your pedestrian self is about to get mowed over by a jeep (as happened to me once), all of a sudden your sensory neurons will say 'whoah fuck!' and as many of them as possible will scoot up to your Operational Brain saying 'we're about to get run over!' And you can often process a pretty large number of sensory details quite clearly in the 5 seconds between the time you see the jeep bearing down on you and the time you get plowed into.

On the other hand, if you are walking down a crowded street and someone near you grabs someone else, knocks them down, shoots them, takes something from them and runs, you will often try to tell the police later - 'It happened so fast.' What you mean is that you didn't process any sensory information about it. Because your brain is set to ask itself this question about danger first 'Is it happening to me?' If not, it next asks itself, how can I make sure it continues to leave me alone? And it concerns itself primarily with ducking, dodging, running, turning away or whatever seems reasonable at the moment. You might have a very clear memory of the assault - but it will consist of a vivid picture of the concrete sidewalk. Because your brain was very concerned about that sidewalk and its characteristics as soon as it got a load of that gun, which it did a lot quicker than you were aware, since it strongly considered hurling you toward that very sidewalk so you wouldn't get shot. Although eyewitnesses to crimes are considered valuable in the criminal justice system, they aren't very reliable - because your brain considers nothing more stupid than witnessing a crime when you could be fucking protecting yourself from it. It doesn't give a fuck what what the guy looked like - it wants to know how hard you're going to hit the concrete. And so your time as a witness will have flown by.

If you accidentally find yourself having a job, you will notice that some days go by fast - and some days crawl by really slowly. The slow days are when you have checked in with the outer world many times, as will often happen when the work you are doing isn't very engaging to your brain. On the other hand, even a stressful day can go by really quickly if you are totally focused on your task. If you have something difficult and absorbing to do, you will tend to concentrate on it to the exclusion of distracting sensory input.

When you are in the zone, as for example, when you are surfing, time will have curious properties. It will be elongated almost to the point of timelessness, so that time seems both full and rich, yet smooth and instantaneous. Time spent surfing will seem both endless and fleeting (if you're good, that is). This is because this kind of activity requires an incredible amount of sensory processing, as you need to stay instantaneously aware of all elements of your environment, yet the kind of processing required is very similar to what your brain uses for internal processing. Your brain uses a synched-up kind of processing for in the zone type processing, partly to cut down on the load on its CPU. It's a very efficient, and even restful form of sensory processing. (Indulge in it often!)

Marijuana can provide interesting time-messing properties. Since it stimulates neural activity or perhaps just drops some of the normal barriers to it, you can find yourself immersed in some very time stretching experiences on dope. For example, let's say you get yourself to a grocery store to soothe your munchies, when you inadvertently stumble into the Pepperidge Farm section of the cookie aisle. As your sensory neurons fire away furiously, you can find yourself adrift in a gigantic ocean of time as you immerse yourself in a full sensory contemplation of Mint Milano, Bordeaux and Geneva cookies. It can seem like days, as you are unable to tear yourself away from a thorough sensory evaluation of those little bags of cookies. On the other hand, on dope you can lose time and become quite disoriented as you drift into some major internal processing in which you consider the possibility that the entire universe is a gigantic spider web except that the silken strands are invisible even though they are what is holding the stars together. And this can seem like a profound and important thought - to the extent that when you wake up from it, you have no idea what day it is any more. Did you spend a week in spider-web land, is it still Wednesday? And so on. All because your body uses sensory processing to establish time length.

By the way, sensory processing is by and large harder and more stressful on your body than internal processing. Which is partly why your body tries to minimize it over time. The upshot of this is that time spent in serious daydreaming where you tune the world out, or meditating if constant sexual fantasizing doesn't happen to be your style - will lengthen your life, improve your health and spruce up that sagging skin tone!

All right, enough fucking made up scientific info. Now, since you are bored - we are going to give you a fun, interactive activity.

Interactive Activity! - Okay, now that you know the principle - go around and search out examples for yourself. Instead of being bored in your college class, entertain yourself by thinking of all kinds of different experiences and whether they go fast or slow or how much processing they entail. Vacation in New York City - fast or slow? First kiss - fast or slow? Does the principle hold true - or does it not?

Think on this fascinating topic deeply and thoroughly. Your brain loves this kind of shit, it just loves interactive activities like this. A lot more than it loves a bad explanation of standard deviation in your statistics class. And your brain will reward you by totally tuning out that boring lecture and giving you back that otherwise lost hour of your life!

Just another life enhancement courtesy of

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