For some, time flies. For others, it hangs rather heavily. While the time that we feel changes depending on our mood, the clock on the wall gives the actual time dispassionately.

A research team on the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT-H), headed by Bapi Raju, is probing how people ‘experience’ time vis-a-vis the actual time.

“It is important to know how time is processed in the human system and the distortion in experiencing time,” Bapi Raju told BusinessLine .


Raju said the outcome of the study could help people with conditions like dementia and have applications in sports and air traffic control.

There has been significant debate in scientific circles on whether there is a co-relation in the way the brain processes numbers, time and space.

Vincent Walsh, professor of Human Brain Research at University College London, argues that time, numbers and space are converted into a common currency. Since all the three get processed in the same brain region, they influence each other.

The role of numbers

The IIIT-H team has conducted tests among focus groups to investigate whether the presence of numbers affects/distorts one’s experience of time.

The team threw sets of positive and negative numbers and asked questions like, which is bigger or smaller. “We noticed that when a large positive number such as 9 was presented to a set of audience, time was overestimated. Small numbers n the presence of a small number such as 1, time was underestimated,” says Raju.

“The relation of number to magnitude is straight forward in the case of positive numbers and processing is much faster and automatic,” he said.

But in the case of negative numbers, the relation between numbers and their magnitude is reciprocal in nature and that affects the judgement of time,” explains doctoral student Anuj Shukla, who is part of the research team on this intriguing subject.

The researchers suggest that there is the possibility of other brain areas being involved. “Neuro-imaging studies can help identify the areas in the brain that are activated while analysing the tasks. If they are activated, we can discount the possibility of a common magnitude system,” Shukla said.

The findings from the study could prove helpful in a lot of areas, according to Bapi Raju. For example, further studies could help us to find early signs of dementia.

“If we know how to make people feel half a second as one second, it would help sports personalities, people manning the Air Traffic Control systems and pilots in responding better to situations. It will give you that edge over your rival,” he says.