Time Flies, Consciousness and Other Things That Seem to Move But Don’t

Sensation and perception of time in the brain by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Unsplash

Sensations of Time

The five senses take in information from the environment in unique ways. The ticking of a clock can be heard. The brain takes in, unconsciously, a sense of the seconds passing. The sun crossing the sky can be seen. The brain synchs its circadian rhythms with the length of the day and the position of the sun in the sky. An imbalance of this perception of time can result in sleep disorders and a feeling of being jet lagged. Daily changes in the electromagnetic cycles of the earth can be felt through the skin.

Frontal Cortex, Dopamine and Acetylcholine

According to Rhailana Fontes and colleagues, “Dorsolateral prefrontal right cortex is considered as the region most involved in time perception. The modulation by brain neurochemistry and integration with other brain areas such as the cerebellum and basal ganglia have been highlighted by dopamine, which appears to be related with perception of seconds to minutes, and associated to the frontostriatal circuitry. On the other hand, the acetylcholine is related to memory and attention on tasks involving time perception [1].”
Paying attention to the timing of movement, counting the seconds while walking, and feeling the rhythm of time can influence the brain and improve walking smoothness in movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease that involves dopamine or Myasthenia gravis, which involves acetylcholine.

Parietal Cortex

“The perception of external stimuli is integrated by parietal cortex to the time scales for a count of milliseconds and seconds intervals. Particularly, lateral intraparietal area was associated to time perception. Moreover, Maimon and Assad demonstrated a wider participation of neurons on lateral intraparietal area in timing the execution of movements in response to external stimuli. They support the idea that activity of the lateral intraparietal area has a probability in determining if an event is about to occur [1].”

Time Metaphors and the Claustrum

The right claustrum, an area associated with consciousness has been linked to the consciousness of time and the ability to use time related metaphors. A 2016 study in Cortex had participants read sentences that describe the timing or events associated with movement verbs, like crawl. “The hours crawled until the release of the news.” Comparison conditions were fictional motion like “the trail crawled until the end of the hills” and literal motion, “the caterpillar crawled towards the top of the tree.” Several areas of the brain were activated by these time related metaphors, including the right claustrum. It didn’t seem to matter whether the time was related to an actual movement like a caterpillar crawling or a fictional movement like a trail crawling [3].

Meditation, Fear and the Perception of Time

Meditation and other ways to calm the body can improve the perception of time. Fear distorts the ability gage the passage of time. Researchers “examined the effects of emotional bodily expressions on the perception of time. Participants were shown bodily expressions of fear, happiness and sadness in a temporal bisection task featuring different stimulus duration ranges. Stimulus durations were judged to be longer for bodily expressions of fear than for those of sadness, whereas no significant difference was observed between sad and happy postures. These results suggest that the perception of fearful bodily expressions increases the level of arousal which, in turn, speeds up the internal clock system underlying the representation of time [4].

Color and How Long Something Takes

Color is part of our environment. In Traditional Chinese Medicine colors are associated with different organ meridians or lines of energy. For example, the color red is associated both with the heart and with the small intestine. The idea is that by wearing the color red or focusing on the color red or even visualizing the color red, heart and small intestine health is supported. A recent study in the International Journal of Psychology stated, “In this research, we used the verbal estimation paradigm to determine if the color red affects individuals’ perception of interval duration. In our results, perceived duration was shorter in a red condition than in a blue one; additionally, only in the red condition, perceived duration was shorter in an online dating context than in an online interviewing context [5].


The passage of time perceived in the brain centers: frontal lobe, parietal lobe, basal ganglia, cerebellum, hippocampus, and claustrum are influenced by color, expectations, language, and emotions. Imbalances in the perception of time result in sleep disorders, memory problems, and contribute to other disease processes.


  1. Fontes R, Ribeiro J, Gupta DS, Machado D, Lopes-Júnior F, et al. (2016) Time Perception Mechanisms at Central Nervous System. Neurol Int 8(1): 5939.
  2. Bechlivanidis C, Lagnado DA (2016) Time reordered: Causal perception guides the interpretation of temporal order. Cognition 146: 58–66.
  3. Lai VT, Desai RH (2016) The grounding of temporal metaphors. Cortex 76: 43–50.
  4. Droit-Volet S, Gil S (2016) The emotional body and time perception. Cogn Emot 30(4): 687–699.
  5. Shi J, Huang X(2017) The colour red affects time perception differently in different contexts. Int J Psychol 52(1): 77–80.
  6. http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/the-most-popular-color-in-the-157991
  7. Lisi M, Gorea A (2016) Time constancy in human perception. J Vis 16(14): 3.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kimberly Burnham

Kimberly Burnham

Writer, Poet, Ekphrastic Writer-in-Residence, Nerve Whisperer, Brain Health Coach, Author of The Traveling Brain: Illuminating Peace Poetry in 5000 Languages.