Study: Moving Backward Alters Our Perception of Time

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We perceive the future as closer than the past. Except for when we're moving in reverse.

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When college students were asked to look one month either into the past or the future, they perceived the future as closer ("a really short time from now"), while feeling more "psychologically distant" from the past. Commuters at a Boston train center, when asked to do the same (for 12 months' time), felt much closer to the future. A third group, Internet users anticipating Valentine's Day a week in advance, thought the holiday was quickly approaching; a week after the event, others thought it had been over for quite awhile, now.

The way we perceive time, then, is similar to the way we perceive space. Just as an approaching sound is heard at a higher pitch than a receding noise, and an object that you're approaching appears visibly closer than an equidistant object you're leaving behind, the future -- which we're constantly moving "toward" -- feels closer than events in the receding past.

Researchers led by Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago established this phenomenon, which they call the "temporal Doppler effect," through the above-mentioned studies. The next logical question -- for those of us who already regretting something that's ended or who are dreading an upcoming event -- is whether we can make it stop. The researchers repeated their earlier studies, asking 80 college students to think about events either three weeks in the future or three weeks in the past. But this time, they created the illusion of traveling through space, via a head-mounted virtual reality system.

After accelerating down a virtual road toward a virtual building, students continued to perceive the future as closer than the past. But reverse movement counteracted the perception of moving forward through time. The future, for students accelerating away from the building, actually felt slightly more distant than the past.

Does this mean running backwards can cure that sickening feeling of hurtling forward through time? Perhaps. Here, it didn't entirely reverse the phenomenon, but it did moderate it significantly. We might be best off leaving things be. There's good reason to argue in favor of our "bias toward the future," write Caruso and company. It allows us to get over things we can't change while actively preparing for what's still to come.


"The Temporal Doppler Effect: When the Future Feels Closer Than the Past " is published in Psychological Science.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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