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Slow Burn

David Rosenthal, professor of philosophy and coordinator of cognitive science at CUNY, on our experience of time.

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Why does time seem to pass so slowly when we’re waiting on line?
Expert neurological evidence suggests that there’s a disparity in our thought processes—the mind is only conscious of a thought or decision a moment after it’s made. The slower the transition between these two moments, the slower time seems to be passing. The speed of the process is dependent upon outside factors. When one is engaged, say, at an exciting sporting match, the process goes faster, making time seem to go quickly. When the transition from unconscious to conscious thought slows—at a boring office meeting, for example—so, too, does one’s perception of time.

Yes, why are office meetings so boring?
It’s a vicious cycle. When you’re not stimulated, your thought process slows, so you’re bored and you want to speed it up. One way to do that is to talk. Unfortunately, this in turn bores everyone else, so then they start talking.

Do we have any control over time?
You can make time go faster by training yourself to think about engaging, exciting things that will speed up your thought process. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Does time go faster in New York?
Of course. There are so many things pulling at you that your mind is always stimulated and racing. Once you spend any time away, you realize how much slower life seems to occur.


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