Today is the last day of January. Or for some of you on Twitter – it is Day 74 of January. January has taken its sweet time. Roz Chast’s cartoon for The New Yorker depicts what we all in our hearts know to be true. January is the longest month of the year.
This feeling, however, on the surface at least makes no sense. Several months in the year have 31 days in them. If any month should be made fun of for how long it lasts, it should be February. WTF is a leap year anyway?
Time perception, though, is a tricky concept to pin down. William Skylark, a researcher working on this topic at the University of Cambridge, says that “mental time is a pretty fragile metric for physical duration”.
We all experience time differently, and there are a range of factors that can affect it.
Stimulants, such as caffeine have been found (unsurprisingly) to make time feel like it’s going fast. Studies have also shown participants who asked how time feels straight after watching a scary movie say it feels longer. In other words, fear slows time down, which the experiments said was the “effect of arousal on the speed of the internal clock system”.
This internal clock system is how we judge seconds. It is believed to be located in the part of the brain known as the striatum, though researchers have been looking at whether other areas (notably the hippocampus) have parallel clock systems.
January, of course, has the distinction of following the most packed month of the year. December too has 31 days, but it is a constant barrage of events to look forward to and recover from.
Zhenguang Cai, a PhD student at UCL working on time perception, tells me: “It is possible that re-starting work after the Christmas break leads to a lot of boredom (compared to fun during Christmas break), which in turn lead to the impression that time slows down in January.”
January, on the other hand, is just work. And that ultimately seems to be why January feels so slow. Having fun appears to be the biggest predictor of whether you experience time going slowly or quickly.
This phenomenon is most readily explained by the dopamine clock hypothesis, which states that higher levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in your brain associated with motivation and reward, speeds up your internal clock, making time seem like it is going quicker. Studies in mice have shown this largely to be true. Nevertheless, there are complications when different areas of the brain are observed, and there is still a lot to be discovered on the topic.
One study conducted in 2010 gave 37 university students a long piece of text and asked them to underline all the words with a double-letter combination in them. One set of students spent 20 minutes on the task, whereas the other set spent five minutes. Both groups however were told that the task had taken them 10 minutes.
The students were then asked to make a retrospective time judgement. This is the type of judgement you make every time you say January has been excessively long. You’re looking back on an event or period and making a judgement of how long you thought or felt it was. You aren’t counting during that time period, at least not in the way you might count beats if you played the piano. So instead of relying on your internal clock, this judgement relies predominantly on your memory.
The participants who had spent five minutes on the task, but had been told by the researchers they had spent 10 minutes on it, felt not only that time had gone very quickly, but they also enjoyed the task more. Those who had spent 20 minutes on the task, and then were told they had only spent 10, found the task dull and believed that time had dragged on.
Neither group disbelieved the scientists. We have a poor ability to determine how long something lasted for. And the longer we think something lasts, the less fun we have and the more we complain. That is the ultimate answer for why everyone is tweeting about how long January has lasted.
The lack of daylight is also a culprit for why we all feel this way. Professor David Whitmore at UCL notes: “Although the days are lengthening a little, they still feel as if they are shortening. This leads to the sense that the day ends early. It feels later earlier than it is.”
In 1992, Professor Dan Zakay, proposed that time feels longer in situations where time is very relevant and the interval of time is uncertain, or in other words, you don’t know when something is going to end. Think being stuck in traffic on your way to the airport.
In January, we are highly aware of the time, be that because we’re trying to go the gym more or because we’re in the office every day. And unlike the later months, we don’t really have anything to look forward to: there are no bank holidays and the summer is months away.
In fact our collective acknowledgement that January is long, has actually made it feel longer, because we are more aware of the time. How we perceive time, at least long stretches of it, reflects how we feel.
So next time someone complains about how long a month has felt, don’t point out it has 31 days – just ask them how their day has been.
This article was originally published on 31 January 2018.
[See also: My nephew has changed how I feel about children]