We humans have been able to calculate the passage of time mentally with some precision. We were able to infer how long it took to visit a relative and how long it took to reach a destination. A series of organic processes enable our internal clock to exist.
However, this accuracy is lost in certain contexts, pleasurable or boring. Who has never experienced the boringly slow minutes in tedious situations? Already at a good party, "time flies more than the song."
It seems paradoxical that we have a biological system that is accurate at estimating time, but which, when pressed by emotions, is deregulated. Do our emotions cloud our insights, including our perception of time? Does emotion, by corrupting reason, misrepresent our mental order and prevent us from distinguishing the cadence from the succession of minutes? Do our emotions make precision impossible?
We would be too simplistic if we accepted this premise. First, because there is no completely detached reason for emotions. Second, emotions-modulated time perception distortions are not a biological error, but a favorable adaptive process for our survival.
This is what psychologist Sophie Fayolle has shown. In one experiment, the scientist distributed controlled electric shocks to participants while evaluating how they perceived time passing. After finishing his tests, Fayolle analyzed how emotions, or rather fear and pain, distorted the perception of time.
People, literally shocked, overestimated the duration of electric martyrdom and underestimated the time elapsed throughout the tests. Therefore, participants had their internal clock accelerated during shocks, which distorted the conception of time. This watch highlighted what thrills by overemphasizing the moments of electrical discomfort.
Fayolle has proven that emotions affect our temporal judgment, and this should motivate us to act as quickly as we are threatened.
But, after all, what does the conjunction of our perception of time and our emotions do? The answer is dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes us judge time and also gives us the sensation of pleasure.
The nucleus accumbens is a brain structure that works as a center of motivation. It makes us crave the pleasurable bonuses of life, such as those obtained in meals and in sex. This core. when soaked in dopamine, it gives the impression that time flows faster. But being deprived of this neurotransmitter will give us the impression that seconds lazily stretched. Pleasure is also mediated by the release of dopamine. So this neurotransmitter makes time fly and we have pleasure.
An interesting question, which explains a lot about our behavior, is that fear and hedonic pleasure share similar biochemical processes. Within the accumbens nucleus there is a thin line separating the two emotions. This border is permissive, something that explains how we can enjoy being afraid, and how this feeling appeals to us.
The desire for fear exposes us to high speeds, horror movies, parachuting. The desire for pleasure that accelerates time. And it gives the distinct impression that the adventure was short-lived.