Meditation Alters the Perception of the Passage of Time
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Experienced meditators typically report that they experience time slowing down in meditation practice as well as in everyday life. Conceptually this phenomenon may be understood through functional states of mindfulness.” – Marc Wittmann
There are times in life when time just seems to wiz by and others when it seems to creep. There are also times when it seems like a minute passing feels like 5 minutes and others when it feels like only a few seconds. In other words, our sense of the speed of time passing and the amount of time that has passed varies from occasion to occasion. One factor that effects the perception of time is the content of the interval and the frequency of events occurring. If the interval is relatively packed with events and stimuli, then the time period is overestimated, suggesting that time seemed to pass more slowly. If, on the other hand, there are few things occurring in the interval, then time is underestimated, suggesting that time seemed to pass more quickly.
Meditation involves paying close attention to the contents of the present moment; calming the mind and reducing thinking and discursive thought. Focusing on the present moment would tend to fill awareness. This suggests that meditating would increase the apparent amount of things occurring and would thus predict that the interval would appear longer than otherwise.
In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness meditation, time judgment and time experience: Importance of the time scale considered (seconds or minutes).” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6799951/), Droit-Volet and colleagues recruited college students and randomly assigned them to receive either mindfulness meditation (body scan) or a control condition (listening to poems). In the first study, the mindfulness meditation participants listened to a guided body scan meditation while lying on their backs at home for 11 minutes daily for 7 days. The control condition was similar except they listened to recorded poems. They were then tested in the lab where they first meditated or listened to poems for 8 minutes and then were presented by tones separated either by short intervals (16-50 seconds) or long intervals (2-6 minutes) and were asked to estimated the duration of the intervals.
They found that the meditation group in comparison to the controls significantly underestimated the duration of the short intervals and significantly overestimated the duration of the longer intervals. During the session the meditation group but not the control group reported a significant reduction in anxiety and a significant increase in happiness and significantly faster passage of time.
In a second study a similar procedure was followed except that the same participants performed the meditation and also the control condition in counterbalanced order and only long intervals were used. In addition, they reported for each interval the passage of time, demands on their attention, task difficulty, present moment focus, and arousal levels.
Once again, they found that during the meditation session the participants overestimated the durations of the long intervals. They also indicated significantly longer passage of time, significantly greater demands on their attention, task difficulty, and present moment focus. They found that present moment awareness mediated the effect of meditation on duration estimates with the greater the focus on the present moment the greater the overestimation of the interval duration.
They suggest that the underestimation of the short intervals by the meditation group was due to the effects of attentional focus on the apparent passage of time with high degrees of attentional focus occupying the mind such that there is little resource left for assessing the passage of time. The results also suggest that the overestimation of long intervals was due to attention on the present moment. By focusing on the contents of awareness in the present moment there is a greater amount of stimuli in awareness, filling awareness. More happening signals a greater amount of time passing. Regardless of the explanation, the study demonstrates that meditation alters the estimation of time passage.
So, meditation alters the perception of the passage of time.
“My favorite pastime is to let time pass, to have time, to take my time, to live against time.” — Françoise Sagan
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Droit-Volet, S., Chaulet, M., Dutheil, F., & Dambrun, M. (2019). Mindfulness meditation, time judgment and time experience: Importance of the time scale considered (seconds or minutes). PloS one, 14(10), e0223567. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0223567
This manuscript presents two studies on the effect of mindfulness meditation on duration judgment and its relationship to the subjective experience of time when the interval durations are on the second or the minute time scale. After the first 15 minutes of a 30-min meditation or control exercise, meditation-trained participants judged interval durations of 15 to 50 s or 2 to 6 min, during which they performed either a mindfulness meditation exercise or a control exercise. The participants’ scores on the self-reported scales indicated the effectiveness of the meditation exercise, as it increased the level of present-moment awareness and happiness and decreased that of anxiety. The results showed an underestimation of time for the short interval durations and an overestimation of time for the long intervals, although the participants always reported that time passed faster with meditation than with the control exercise. Further statistical analyses revealed that the focus on the present-moment significantly mediated the exercise effect on the time estimates for long durations. The inversion in time estimates between the two time scales is explained in terms of the different mechanisms underlying the judgment of short and long durations, i.e., the cognitive mechanisms of attention and memory, respectively.