Capital Ideas Blog

Is the future closer than the past?

By Alice G. Walton
December 02, 2013

From: Blog


Remember how long the holidays seemed to take to arrive when you were a kid? Not so for adults. We often have the feeling that time is flying by at a frightening pace—so to us the question is usually more like how can the holidays be possibly coming so soon, when it seems like summer was just yesterday? The concept of time has fascinated, and confounded, people for ages. And because it’s so murky, we usually describe it in physical terms—time marches on, flies by, or, depending on what you’re doing, creeps by at a snail’s pace.

A new study gets to the heart of how our perception of time “distances” can change depending on our vantage point. The team, led by Chicago Booth’s Eugene Caruso, reasoned that our perception of time is actually a lot like our perception of space—in particular, approaching objects (or events) seem closer to us than those that have passed. The authors dubbed this concept, which hints that the future seems to come at us faster than the past recedes, the “temporal Doppler effect.”

To test their hypothesis, Caruso and team asked people in a train station to gauge whether a period of time (a month or a year) seemed further away in the past vs. the future. They also asked people one week before or one week after Valentine’s Day how far away the holiday felt to them. In both cases, people rated future events as feeling much closer to them than past ones.

And this future-past effect seems to be deeply rooted in our perception of space. For instance, when people watched virtual displays in which they were moving to or from an object, the feeling that future events seem closer totally disappeared when the participants were “moving” backwards in space. Caruso and his team say that this time effect occurs because the distance from the future is diminishing, whereas the distance from the past is always growing.

Interestingly, this temporal Doppler effect may have clinical relevance, since people with depression or other mental health disorders may be more likely to ruminate and obsess about the past than healthy individuals. The effect may also have an everyday benefit—it may help us plan better for the future, since the future seems to come rapidly towards us.

Of course, when it comes to kid perceptions about the future, all bets are off. If you’re tired of your child bemoaning the fact that Christmas or Hanukkah is never gonna come, try telling him to relax and enjoy the suspense. The feeling that the future is endless before him may disappear all too soon.

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