Time perception, mindfulness and attentional capacities in transcendental meditators and matched controls

Our perception of and memory for the passage of time depend on a lot of factors that are unrelated to the actual physical passage of time, as measured by a clock. The adages “time flies when you’re having fun” and “a watched pot never boils” summarize these effects: fill an interval with a lot of interesting stimuli, and time [prospectively] flies, but an empty interval occupied only by waiting will seem to last an eternity. As a generalization, explanations for these effects tend to focus on how much attention was on time itself. When exciting things are happening, you don’t pay much attention to time passing, and so time seems to fly, whereas when nothing’s happening, where else could you put your attention but on the passing of time?

Meditation can take many forms, but (here comes another generalization) one commonality among various practices is that they often promote awareness – whether of one’s surroundings, one’s own mental state, or one’s responses to external stimuli – and self-regulation. With respect to time perception, one consequence of meditation that is particularly interesting is mindfulness, that is, bringing one’s attention to the experiences occurring in the present moment. Intuitively, it makes sense that mindfulness might improve time perception, or in some cases, might lengthen perceived duration, as time won’t fly like it would if you were distracted from each present moment.

Transcendental meditation is a specific practice in which a calm, peaceful, and aware mental state is achieved via repetition of a mantra. Making an assumption that transcendental meditation practitioners would be more mindful than matched controls, Schötz, Otten, Wittmann, Schmidt, Kohls, and Meissner tested for a relation between mindfulness and time perception. Practitioners and controls were tested on mindfulness, impulsiveness, attention, time perspective, subjective experience of time, as well as time estimation, reproduction, and discrimination tasks. I’ve taken the liberty of plotting the important results, since the original manuscript didn’t contain any figures.

Meditators were significantly more mindful (present and accepting), scored higher on the “present fatalistic” dimension of the time perspective questionnaire (related to mindfulness, can be summarized by the statement “Because things always change, one cannot foresee the future”), and reported significantly less time pressure than matched controls. The groups were matched on other important things though, like attentional capacities, stress levels, and mental and physical activity.

There were also differences in terms of time perception, but some of the results were admittedly very confusing. Meditators were better at estimating an 80-s interval during which they were reading numbers, but weren’t better at producing a minute while reading numbers, or estimating a 40-s interval while not doing anything else. (The dashed lines in the figure are the target duration – if the bars hit those dashed lines, participants would be, on average, perfectly accurate.)

Meditators were also more precise at reproducing intervals in the milliseconds-to-seconds range (600 ms – 1400 ms and 8 s – 20 s), thought the metric used to determine precision completely escaped me – it’s also very strange based on the psychophysics of time perception that precision would be on the order of 13% for intervals that were hundreds-of-milliseconds long, but on the order of 2% for longer intervals (it’s the latter part that’s more weird). But details aside, it seems practitioners were more accurate at interval reproductions.

Finally, auditory temporal discrimination thresholds were smaller for meditators.

So, what can we conclude from these data? Should you practice transcendental meditation to improve your time perception abilities? Maybe just your ability to estimate 80 s while reading numbers? That’s unclear. There certainly does seem to be something to the idea that practicing transcendental meditation might come with a somewhat more accurate time sense. Does this come from using a mantra as a metronome as the authors suggest? Seems unlikely that would be a useful strategy for reproducing e.g., 600 ms. Does it result from being more mindful, and aware of the present and the passage of time? That seems realistic to me. But, importantly, moving forward, and as scientific as well as personal interest in meditative practices seems to increase, it’s critical to use well-motivated and well-controlled designs to test the potential benefits as well as detriments of meditation.

– Source article: Schötz, Otten, Wittmann, Schmidt, Kohls, Meissner. Time perception, mindfulness and attentional capacities in transcendental meditators and matched controls. Personality and Individual Differences.