How you perceive time reveals a lot about you

It almost seems counterintuitive to consider time perception as a subjective matter of psychology. The entire world operates on the theory of time zones and a 24-hour clock, but how individuals perceive their own sense of time or experience can be totally different from someone else’s.

This is the foundation behind AsapSCIENCE’s viral TikTok, which has more than 5 million views. The video explains that there are two distinct ways people can perceive time.

Host Gregory Brown asks followers, “If I tell you that Wednesday’s noon meeting has been moved forward by two hours, do you now think the meeting is at 2 p.m. or at 10 a.m.?”

“Uh who the heck would say 10:00am??” one commenter replied.

“Y’all it got moved FORWARD, so that would be 10 am, 2 pm would be ‘it got pushed back,'” a 10 a.m. truther explained.

“If you think that it got moved to 2 p.m., that means you have the ego-moving perspective of time,” Brown says. “You see yourself as moving forward through time.”

“If you now think the meeting is at 10 a.m., this means you have the time-moving perspective of time,” Brown continues. “You see yourself as stagnant and as time moving forward towards you.

How we view time also reflects how we talk about time. For example, if you have an ego-moving perspective of time, you might say things like, “We are approaching the deadline” rather than someone with a time-moving perspective who might say, “The deadline is approaching.”

A paper published by Northwestern University in 2002 elaborates on this by explaining what happens you visualize both perspectives and how it influences language. For an ego-moving perspective, people visualize themselves as moving through time. For a time-moving perspective, they see themselves as a person standing still and time moving by them. In both visualizations, there’s a “front” and “back” to the person that impacts how you speak about the past and future.

How we speak about time indicates what type of perspective we’re visualizing. For ego-moving, the “front” is assigned to a “future” event (e.g., “His whole future is in front of him.”) For time-moving, the “front” is assigned to the past (e.g. “I will email you after the meeting.”)

There is also a case to be made that people who have an ego-moving perspective of time are thinking of time in a more visual sense (e.g., the meeting at noon that was moved forward two hours is now further in front of them). Interestingly, a 2018 report found that participants in the study who were blind did not think of time in this way at all.

This doesn’t mean you are stuck with one singular perspective. According to a 2013 study by Albert Lee and Li-Jun Ji, emotions play a big role in time perspective.

Their study concluded that when reflecting on happy memories, people are more likely to take the ego-moving perspective. On the other hand, when people recall negative memories, they’re more likely to take the time-moving perspective. This suggests that people prefer to move toward positive stimuli and away from negative.

So depending upon whether a person perceives an event to be positive or negative, that varies how they perceive time.

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