Why does the way there always feel longer than the way back?

Road II by cheapsun, on FlickrI find the same thing with football matches – the second half always feels shorter than the first. Which is good, as I’m not much of a football fan. There are several interesting reasons for this odd phenomenon…

Time ticks steadily on – but our minds don’t. Remember the last time you were anxious about something. Public speaking or an interview, perhaps? Your stomach tied itself in knots, your palms got sweaty and you got jittery. Time felt as though it was dragging as the inevitable slowly approached.

When we get nervous, scared or anxious, the body’s ‘fight or flight‘ response is triggered: adrenaline surges around the body, heart rate increases and pupils dilate. Your body primes itself for action – and so does your brain. Brain cells fire more rapidly – helping you to make decisions very quickly. And as your brain shifts up a gear, time consequently appears to slow down. If you’ve ever jumped off a cliff into the sea (don’t do it), it probably felt like the fall lasted several seconds. In reality it was probably less than one.

Likewise, when you’re travelling somewhere, you are probably feeling ever-so-slightly more anxious than how you feel on the way home. It may be the excitement of going to a nice hotel, or the worry of getting lost. These heightened anxiety levels will make time feel as if is passing more slowly.

However, there is another reason to do with our horribly fallible memory (something my family and friends know only too well).

Everyone’s memory is subject to a psychological phenomenon called ‘telescoping‘:

When did you last see your Great Aunt Daphne? Was it a couple of days, a few weeks, or a couple of months? It is probably longer ago than it feels. Your most recent memories will always feel as though they happened more recently than they did. This ‘telescoping effect’ is greatest for the events that have happened most recently. So, as you sit in the departure lounge considering how long it took to travel from home to the airport, it will feel as if you arrived at checkin much sooner than you did. The memory of setting off from home will not be ‘telescoped’ as much – giving the overall effect that the travelling time was longer than it was.

So if you’re stuck watching a terrible opera, just remember that in the second half the agony won’t last so long….

Question from Hannah Tucker via Faceboo

Answer by Dr Stu

Article by Stuart Farrimond

May 3, 2013

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at realdoctorstu.com or his poncy personal website stuartfarrimond.com. Here's his .

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