Colloquial expressions such as,”time flies when you’re having fun!” have a seed of deeper meaning. The passage of time is largely perceptual. Our brain governs it by determining how much short and long term memory is allocated toward a particular experience.

Tick tock goes the brain clock

We’ve all experienced the sensation. Perhaps during the first time we hear a song, watch a movie or travel somewhere the first time. The first, fresh experience seems to take so long. Then, subsequent repeats of the same experience, such as hearing that same song that was once new several more times — or driving somewhere after you know the way by memory — seem to transpire ‘faster.’

How can this be? The brain is optimizing memory to determine what makes sense to store and what may be a redundancy or overlap of other memories. In essence, our brains are keeping and tossing the fine details of various experiences based on whether they seem to have future value.

Artist’s depiction of brain cells firing.
Image Credit: Argus / Shutterstock

During that first, unique experience there’s much more focus because it is entirely new. This is especially true in experiences that involve spacial memory, such as walking on a new hiking trail.

Other variables at play

The brain is also utilizing various neurotransmitters, like GABA and serotonin to encode memories. This means that in some situations (such as a neurotransmitter imbalance, being on prescription medications, under the influence of alcohol, etc) there is the potential for less encoded memories and therefore the perception of time passing by faster.

Memory encoding also relies on a brain that has plenty of rest. In fact, sleep is part of the brain’s memory optimization process. It sorts through and expunges experiences it determines aren’t being utilized or are redundant. Sleep also allows the brain’s cerebrospinal to be cleaned and for brain cells to be maintained. In fact, it’s now thought that sleep helps the brain flush out beta amyloid plaques that have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So rest up!

The takeaway

We can’t travel in time, but we can try to slow down the perception of time passing by filling our lives with as many unique and new experiences. Aspire to learn something new every day.

Explore, enjoy and delight in the beauty of life’s ephemeral journey. Relishing each moment. For even if we are paying close attention, it will pass by before we know it!