It never feels like there are enough hours in the day.
If someone offered you a button to get things done at twice the speed to free up time, you’d probably jump at it.
In November, Netflix introduced a feature to let users fast-forward their shows, playing at 1.5x speed.
But fast forward has been an option since the days of VHS tapes (OK Boomer ). What’s so different now?
In 2018, Netflix released 1,500 hours of original content and to watch it all, it would take you four hours of streaming a day for a whole year.
With the same number of hours in the day, speed-watching seems a logical solution, for both viewers and the streaming giants, to the information and entertainment glut.
But it leaves a raft of unanswered questions:
- Can you cram more into the time available without any drawbacks?
- Will speed-listening leave us feeling like time is ultrafast or glacially slow?
- Will a life filled with more experience seem fuller – or thinner – in retrospect?
‘The brain is very capable of adapting to changes in experience,’ says Norwegian neuroscientist Prof Edvard Moser.
‘That’s a decent part of the success of the human species – that we are able to adapt to changes in the outside world.’
Yet time (and the speed at which time happens) is different from other sense data we adapt to, like sight, smell and sound.
The body doesn’t have in-built sensors to measure time the way a clock does.
It may feel like we can sense time: waiting for a bus or a phone call can feel tangible, as if the seconds are ticking by.
But that’s a helpful illusion.
Prof Moser won the Nobel Prize in 2014 for discovering neurons called grid cells, which track and remember location.
He’s spent years working out how the brain might track time while lacking a dedicated sensor.
His team has recently honed in on a part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex (EC).
Here, millions of neurons send sequences of information (ordered in time) to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory-forming core.
It’s these sequences that Prof Moser believes gives us our memory of time: (story continues below)
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When information from both parts of the entorhinal cortex is combined, we get a form of memory.
‘The elements of what we call episodic memories, memories of what we experience in the day and night, are stored in [the hippocampus],’ Prof Moser tells Metro.co.uk.
When we look back on our experiences, we’re probably accessing the memories formed in these areas.
But our experience of time in the moment is quite different and the idea of time as we understand it isn’t necessarily a universal one, either.
The Amazonian Amondawa tribe, for example, don’t see time as an independent thing, so ‘working through the night’ wouldn’t make any sense. Instead, they focus on the sequence of events through time rather than time itself.
Psychologists distinguish between clock time (seconds/days/years) and episodic time, the perception of time based on our own experiences.
‘If you think about yesterday, you may remember that you drove to work or took the bus and walked into a building, you sat down at your office and then met someone and then you wrote a paper and had lunch and so on’ says Prof Moser.
This remembered sequence of events, episodic time, is what Prof Moser believes is recorded in the entorhinal cortex.
If this memory-forming part of the brain is just neurons that fire, then is there a way we could modify them to help us experience time moving more quickly, like a fast video?
Some ‘smart drugs’ , like Modafinil, actually purport to increase the memory-forming properties of the brain.
There’s also the argument that smart people really do think faster, where brains are ‘more efficient’ at processing information.
But Prof Moser thinks it unlikely that you can modify cells on an individual level.
‘Our ability to monitor time can always be better but I think it won’t depend on how many cells we have or how fast they are firing,’ says Prof Moser.
‘This is information that is encoded in many hundreds or thousands of cells that work together in a big network.’
A better way to change the way we experience time, it’s argued, is to change the external experiences we have.
According to Prof Sylvie Droit-Volet, a psychologist specialising in time perception, the way the brain records and experiences things depends on both the duration and the type of the task.
Even our mindset going into an activity can change how we feel that time passes.
‘When your attention is captured by a pleasant activity, you do not think about the passage of time and you perceive time to pass more quickly,’ Prof Droit-Volet tells Metro.co.uk.
‘If you are constantly thinking about time, then it seems to pass more slowly because your attention is focused on the passage of time.’
Going back to the Netflix example, you start binge-watching the new series of your favourite show on Saturday morning then, as seemingly an hour passes, it’s suddenly midnight.
Prof Moser agrees that this could be a way to modify the processes of the brain from the outside.
‘If we paid more attention to what was going on in the outside world, that could be one way to more strongly encode a certain sequence [of memory].’
Rather than the speed of what you watch itself, your overall experience of time will depend on how you engage with it.
Zone out and glaze over, you’ll remember little and the hours will zip by.
Pay close attention and be hyper-aware of the time, and the seconds may pass more slowly with the experience sticking in your memory.
Yet even without technology’s effects on time, life might seem to accelerate anyway:
Aside from crackpot theories about something called ‘Schumann resonance’ that is ‘speeding up the earth’s heartbeat’ making time move quicker (to be clear, this is not true), the maxim that time appears to hasten as you age is widespread.
Childhood summers seemed to stretch out forever while holidays now flash by in the blink of an eye.
And there is a lot of debate about why this might be: (story continues below)
How can you get more things done in the time available?
Productivity expert Clare Evans’ top tips for getting more done:
- Set a timer: ‘Whether it’s 10 or 15 minutes, or the Pomodoro idea of 25 minutes, identify what you want to do, set a time limit, go off and do it and you’ll probably achieve it within that time rather than thinking “oh, I’ve got this task to achieve” and it taking you twice as long.’
- Don’t multitask: ‘People think they’re being more productive, but they’re not. Depending what task it is, you’re actually switching very quickly between two tasks with your brain when you multitask. It’s more efficient to focus on one thing at a time.’
- Speed read: ‘Avoid backskipping – this is a habit that slows down reading speed. Break this habit and you’ll read faster. Use a guide (pencil, pen, ruler) to move your eyes smoothly and evenly along the lines, maintaining a continuous speed. Skim read – you don’t need to read every word to understand or find the information you need.’
- Take more breaks: ‘You can re-energise, rejuvenate, and you’ll get more done in the next block of work that you’re doing rather than feeling tired or pressured.’
There is a theory that when the brain becomes older, image processing gets slower so time seems to pass more quickly but neuroscientists, in general, are not aware of any physiological mechanism for this effect.
‘There’s no clear explanation of why that should be so,’ says Prof Moser.
‘We experience the outside in the world in the same way, fundamentally at least, whether we are 20 or 60.’
Studies have shown that it’s more of a perceptual issue.
‘People say that time moves faster as they get older, but they deduce this on the basis of the total duration of life,’ Prof Droit-Volet tells Metro.co.uk.
Looking back after having lived a long life, a memory will seem shorter in comparison to all you’ve experienced.
But if you’re not concerned about trying to speed up time and are just trying to be more productive, then you need to be focused on the task at hand.
‘We think we’re being more productive when we’re multitasking and trying to do two or three things at the same time,’ productivity expert Clare Evans tells Metro.co.uk.
‘People listening to podcasts, watching videos and doing something else together is not a very effective use of your time.’
If you’re watching things on double speed, perhaps the question ‘why do I need to do things twice as quickly?’ should be asked.
‘I think there’s this pressure on people to always be more productive and be more efficient,’ says Evans.
‘That doesn’t necessarily mean doing more, but doing the right things more productively and more efficiently and getting the results.’
Regardless of how time feels, in the moment or retrospectively, there’s nothing stopping us watching and consuming information at faster speeds than we do currently.
‘There’s no reason why the brain couldn’t play a movie in double speed just to get the gist of it,’ says Prof Moser.
‘But maybe the pleasure or enjoyment wouldn’t be the same.’
Until time travel is possible (which a previous Future Of Everything piece thinks could be ), we’ll just have to make do with making the most of the time we have.
And if you’re using time travel to get your Netflix viewing done, you’re probably doing it wrong.
The Future Of Everything
This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything .
From OBEs to CEOs, professors to futurologists, economists to social theorists, politicians to multi-award winning academics, we think we had the future covered, away from the doom-mongering or easy Minority Report references.
Every week, we explained what’s likely (or not likely) to happen.
Talk to us using the hashtag #futureofeverything. Though the series is no longer weekly, if you think we might have missed something vital to the future, get in touch: email@example.com or Alex.Hudson@metro.co.uk