Meditation Can Alter Our Perception Of Time, Study Finds
You know that feeling of sitting at your desk, watching the minutes between 4 and 5 p.m. tick by at what seems like a record-slow pace? Or the feeling of working on a project you love and suddenly you look at the clock and can't believe how much time has passed? Both of these instances involve altered perceptions of time—and it turns out there's another interesting way to experience time as faster or slower than it's happening, too: mindfulness meditation.
A new study recently published in the journal PLOS One found that mindfulness meditation exercises altered participants' perception of time, with time often seeming to pass more quickly than it did in reality.
"Time judgments are highly sensitive to meditation effects," the authors concluded, noting that this effect likely occurred because daily meditation trainings reduced overall anxiety and increased feelings of happiness. When an activity felt enjoyable and non-stressful, participants were less worried about watching the clock.
In the study, which had two phases, the researchers first divided participants into two groups for a week of lessons. In the first group, the participants practiced mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes each day. In the second control group, participants listened to audio recordings of poetry readings rather than learning about meditation. After each lesson, the people in the study were asked to estimate the duration of short and long time intervals (15 to 50 seconds, and two to six minutes).
Compared to the poetry readers, the meditators were more likely to underestimate how long they'd been sitting there, at least in the shorter settings. In the longer settings, they often overestimated how long they'd been sitting there but still said the time passed more quickly than they expected. According to the authors, this suggests that meditation alters the way we experience time—but the way we experience time may feel different when the segments are long or short.
For the second phase of the study, the researchers went through the same process with two groups, one of which meditated and the other of which listened to poetry. But this time around, they also asked the participants about how they experienced time distortion after the lessons were over. Compared to the poetry readers, the meditators reported feeling less anxious and more happy after their lessons. They also reported feeling more "present-moment awareness," which makes sense given that meditation practices are known to heighten the experience of the here and now.
The researchers ultimately concluded that experiencing time more quickly was likely tied to feelings of calm and focus: "The statistical analyses revealed that time was judged to pass faster when the participants felt calmer and when their attention was focused on the exercise and the present moment, the two being obviously linked. Therefore, the more attention was focused on the required exercise, the longer the interval dedicated to this exercise was considered to be, and the faster external time was judged to pass."
Beginning a daily meditation practice can be quite beneficial in both your personal and professional life. We know that mindfulness meditation is tied to the reduction of overall anxiety and depression, improved communication in relationships, overcoming addiction, and feeling more at ease with your emotions.
And time flies when you're having fun or, in this case, feeling good.
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Jenni Gritters is a health journalist and certified yoga teacher from Seattle, WA. She has a degree in psychology from Bucknell University and a master's degree in journalism from Boston University. She received her yoga teaching certification with Sendatsu Evolution. Gritters covers the science of healthy living, focusing on the newest scientific research about living a satisfying life. She runs a weekly column for Medium’s health magazine Elemental called "The Health Diaries", and she previously worked as an editor at The New York Times' product review site Wirecutter where she edited longform health, fitness, travel, and outdoors content.