Study: Awe-Inspiring Experiences Change Our Perception of Time

Awe-inspiring experiences make you feel that time is more plentiful. They also incline you to give of your time more freely. So go get your fill of awesomeness.


[Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

Here's a question addressed straight to the soul (and the hippocampus): what are your most memorable moments of awe?

If you're like me, those moments are a bit difficult to specify and describe. If I really put my mind to it, images of a particularly fantastic (and almost destructive) fireworks display, as well as a car ride through the mountains of Wyoming, resurface.

Admittedly, awe is a tricky thing to qualify-- and for that matter, to quantify. As a subjective emotion, it's going to be felt differently by each individual, and for different reasons. What one person considers an awesome sight or experience might be met with ambivalence in another.

Still, a new study by three psychology scientists (forthcoming in Psychological Science) offers valuable insight into the universal power of awe.

Although the study looks to investigate several aspects of this emotion, the initial -- and perhaps most intriguing-- hypothesis is pretty striking: the experience of awe will expand your perception of time.

In order to prove this theory, and to better understand the effects of awe on the human psyche, scientists Rudd, Vohs, and Aaker conducted three experiments.

The first was to test the aforementioned hypothesis that awe can alter time perception; participants unscrambled sentences, watched commercials (with large, striking images), and answered questions about personal beliefs in order to create a perceived time availability index. Having participants write narratives about personal experiences and answer filler items about their willingness to volunteer time or donate money to certain charitable tasks, the second experiment was then performed to evaluate whether awe could make time seem more "plentiful." In parallel with these first two tests, the third experiment looked to see if life satisfaction might be affected by awe. It also focused on whether participants might choose material goods over an experience.

The results lined up perfectly with the study's founding premise (which was probably unsurprising to the study's authors). They show that experiencing a moment of awe can indeed alter your perception of time -- specifically, it makes you feel like you have more time.

Referencing current research, the study offers several explanations for this phenomenon. Perhaps most integral, though, to this study is the fact that awe puts the beholder in the moment, which can augment his or her sense of time.

In addition to confirming the expansion of time, the study shows that awe can ease impatience and actually make you more willing to volunteer time in the name of others. People also begin to prefer an actual experience over a material good. And just in case that wasn't good enough, an awesome moment can increase your overall satisfaction and happiness in life.

Sounds great, right? But these conclusions probably deserve a bit more reckoning.

For instance, how often do we actually feel overwhelming -- and unadulterated -- awe? We might experience a distinct admiration or reverence for certain things, but it takes something pretty special to evoke a powerful sentiment of awe.

And even if we are to find a sight that's truly awesome (and not have it wear off due to possible re-visitation), how many of us really stop to appreciate it?

These concerns might be valid, but the study still does a pretty good job in confirming the psychological value of awe.That said, go forth and get your fill of awesomeness.