Is time emotional? Affective Context applied to our perception of time

Nick Shackleton-Jones’ article ‘You Don’t Think’ is an interesting new way to view how our minds work. Whether or not you agree, it evolves the broken paradigm that our brains are like computers.

As my body has basically decided I can’t play rugby anymore, I’ve starting thinking a lot about my youth. The glory days where I could bounce when pushed are long gone and I’m resigned to 20 minutes of stretching before I hit the treadmill.

I’ve also become alarmed at the rate time seems to ‘fly’. I remember a past when a week used to feel like a month, whereas now, a month feels like a week. My idea is that the Affective Context model beyond its application to how we think, actually goes someway to explaining our perception of time itself.

I’m far from qualified to make this scientific assertion, but from what I’ve read on Google, there appears to be plenty of evidence to back this up. The ‘strength model’ of time memory and ‘inference model’ both suggest that time perception is anchored around our experience of events.

Big events in our lives are experienced emotionally and ‘imprint’ upon our behaviour or awareness through Affective Context. For example, my first day working at PA could be described as an ‘event’ whereas brushing my teeth this morning isn’t something I’d describe as such.

As children we have frequent and extreme emotional reactions to things and thus time ‘moves slowly’. The gap between Event A or Event B is small, and lots of new things and emotional reactions are happening. There’s lots of Affective Context and therefore a day for a child feels like a week.

As we move into adulthood we become accustomed to the world and the frequency of Affective Context reduces. If I have two events of Affective Context a week, that week will be temporally experienced as a sum of two, rather than of a comparable sum of 10 from my childhood.

The upshot of this is that as I get older, thanks to a reduction in the frequency of Affective Context, time appears to ‘speed up’. The distance between Event A and Event B is much larger and so a month feels more like a week.


This is the ‘Innovation Squiggle’. Can this model be synthesized with Affective Context? Emotional friction in our experience ‘slows time’, then as we find our way to cope, time runs smoothly and more quickly.

Another interesting observation I’ve made as a result of writing this article, is that boredom is an emotional reaction, a little like anxiety or depression. I have been thinking through the exception that clock-watching appears to ‘slow down’ time.

I propose that the frustration felt between checking the clock at 10:10 and 10:15, are two moments of Affective Context. The frequency of the experience may therefore account for the sense that time is ‘dragging’.

The practical application of this theory of time perception is that to ‘slow time’, we need to have more experiences that stir our Affective Context. This isn’t easy as we get older because less things surprise or shock. We’re constantly ‘chasing the dragon’, as to a degree, we become desensitised by experience. We need the world to be drastically different to make a dent in our perception.

It may seem obvious to say that the more things that happen to us, the slower time goes. But by applying the Affective Context model to our perception of time, I believe we might have a theory of time perception that makes sense and gives us a practical way to address it.


  1. I really enjoyed this post, I think because it speaks to how we live our lives not just how we learn. I think you’re right: as we age we have to seek out ever more challenging experiences or risk a slow death. That is how we are designed. I’m with Dylan Thomas: ‘rage against the dying of the light’.

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