On learning: How it affects our perception of time

“It is a strange thing, but when you are dreading something, and would give anything to slow down time, it has a disobliging habit of speeding up.” – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Last week, I traveled back to my hometown to celebrate Diwali. I had a week – long holiday from work, and I had decided to make the most of the time available to me and make this stay of mine as productive as possible – there were a lot of things on my “to – do list”.

However, it is Wednesday evening already and I have barely touched some of the things which I had planned to do. What intrigued me was not my habit to procrastinate and push things forward (a habit that I am quite aware of, and am trying to change) but the fact that the time moved too damn fast.

If I try to consciously recall the details of my activities in the last two days, I will not be able to make a full account of the full 72 hours. While I can, at the moment recollect things such as receiving guests at home for Diwali and going to a neighbourhood restaurant for a dinner with my parents, I am not able to recall specific details of my daily activities such as when I had my dinner and what brand of deodorant I used while stepping out of the house. If I was to extend this further and try and think back on the 25 years I have spent alive, no way can I come up with a detailed account of each an every moment. I can not remember details about my birthdays – what place did we go to for dinner, what gifts did I get – but I remember very vividly one birthday on which I broke my nose while getting down the stairs and another (and more recently) which I spent alone and baked a cake all for myself.

This brings to light very clearly – and this is my own interpretation of my observations – that the mind cannot remember a chain of events unless there is something new and remarkable about them. We have breakfast, lunch and dinner every day – and there is nothing extraordinary about these rituals – hence I am sure most of us would have trouble recollecting what we had for lunch even 2 days back. However, most of us would be able to recall very clearly the first time we sampled a new dish or visited a new restaurant, because it is a new experience and adds value to the brain’s repository of memories. This also explains why the speed at which days go by increases rapidly as we grow older. I distinctly recall the time I spent at school seemed much longer as compared to the 5 years I spent at college (which seemed to pass in a flash), in spite of the latter being a more recent experience. Even my JEE coaching (which thankfully spanned only two years) seemed to last ages as compared to the time I spent at IIT Delhi.

If one was to break it down mathematically, one year in the life of a 1 – year old is 100% of their entire life. On the other side, an additional year for a 20 year old is only 5% of their entire life. The year contains the same 365 days – but they seem so much more longer to someone who has spent only 365 days being alive as compared to someone who has already spent 7300. The mind, therefore, is a funny little thing. It has the ability to affect our perception of time that has passed.On the weekends that I have traveled and visited new places, the 48 hours seemed way longer than the weekends on which I just stayed at home and watched TV or played video games. When you are doing something for the first time, and each second seems like an hour. Once you get used to the motion and can do them without any conscious thought, even an hour passes as quickly as a second. This is simply because the process of learning requires much more cognitive activity as compared to the process of replicating/repeating.


If every passing year was the same as the previous one – filled with the same kind of experiences and the same kind of activities, the apparent time that would be perceived with each additional year would be represented by the graph below. Reality, however, is a little different (and a bit more sad). During the first 20 years or so of our existence, the mind is evolving rapidly. It takes in information about the world, about people and about events. It is learning how to do things and how to respond to external stimuli. All the models that we follow (another name for these models, in my opinion, is values) to carry out our day – to – day activities are being created, tested and based on the outcomes rejected or accepted. This requires significant brainpower, and hence the period of childhood – from adolescence to early adulthood is a long one, full of important lessons learnt both within and outside classrooms.

Enter adulthood. At this time, most of our thoughts and values have become more rigid and our cognitive models are no more as malleable as they once were. We want to live our lives on our own terms, and by our own rules. It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that we are also less open to new experiences – less open to learning, and less open to stepping out of our comfort zone. I am not sure whether this is the cause or it is the effect – but the development of the brain slows down. The brain now starts to apply the models and subroutines it had developed during adolescence

  • Want to walk? One foot forward, push with the other and put the other foot forward, now repeat.
  • Want to talk? Use your vocal chords to create a vibrating column of sounds having varying frequencies
  • Want to eat/drink? Take a mouthful, chew it and use the muscles in your throat and food pipe to push the food down.

It is the beauty of the human brain that once learnt, these activities can be done without any conscious effort. And hence, once we gain the ability to do so, we stop devoting brainpower to these activities. The flipside to this seemingly powerful ability of the brain is that once we stop expending conscious effort into doing activities, the brain and the body can carry them out in conjunction without a lot of interference from the conscious part. And hence, even though we spend a lot of time in doing the things we have already done, in our mind time passes quickly.

So even though biology is against us, how can we put effort into making the most of the time that we have? And more importantly, how can we spend this time consciously? The answer is simple – to do things that we have not done before and to collect new experiences! Each new experience, however small, gives the brain an additional stimulus to evolve. Every new snippet of knowledge – whether gained in the form of reading, listening or through experience – provides food to our brain and helps us be more conscious and in the present. Another way to live life and spend time more consciously is to understand and appreciate the dichotomy of mind and body – and to be aware of our bodily functions as we are performing them. Next time when you are breathing, try and pay a little bit more attention to the air filling up your lungs. The next time when you are running, try and observe closely how your legs and arms provide balance and help propel you forward. And the next time you are angry or sad or experiencing any emotion, view yourself as a third person and assess the emotions that are being felt. These exercises (and I will share more when I have them!) help is in two ways

  • They help us understand our mind and body better, and gain insight into how they are interlinked
  • We gain insight into the cognitive models we have developed since our childhood – and by being aware about them we can appreciate them, improve them and (if need be) challenge them and pave the way for new, better ones.



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