Armando Iannucci’s acclaimed 2005 political sitcom The Thick of It once had a character (Chris Langham’s cabinet minister Hugh Abbot) admit that his idea of “quality time” was taking a dump while not reading the New Statesman. In this delightful half-hour programme (25 May, 11am) Iannucci – who is, it should be noted, not only a reader of this magazine but an occasional contributor too – speaks to experts across a number of disciplines to try to better understand how we experience the passing of time. Does it move more slowly when we experience pain? Do we really see things “in slow motion” during a sudden accident?
The neuroscientist David Eagleman tested this hypothesis by throwing apparently willing participants backwards from the top of 150-foot towers on to safety nets while information flashed across a device on their wrists – the information could only be processed if perceived more slowly than normal. (We hear Eagleman play a video clip of one poor soul screaming as he falls from this great height.) He found that they didn’t, in fact, see things more slowly than at any other time.
Studies show that as people age, time seems to pass more quickly: the mathematician Kit Yates explains that this is because we experience it as the percentage of the life we’ve lived so far, which seems like common sense. But Ruth Ogden, a psychologist, tells us that the number of memories we make and the level of arousal we experience during any given time will alter how long it seemed to last. This, she explains, is the reason behind a phenomenon I have long noticed in my own life: that a journey seems longer the first time we take it (we are seeing new things for the first time, and we also might be anxious about – or at least more alert to – whether we are going the right way). The more aroused we are, the quicker time passes, and, of course, the more bored we are, the more it slows.
Perhaps time simultaneously seemed to first slow down, then speed up, during the pandemic because it was both so new and scary, and then so repetitive and dull. But scientists are yet to reach a consensus on how quickly time passes when reading the New Statesman.
Why Time Flies (And How to Slow it Down)
BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy