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Losing time

If you haven’t heard of it, WNYC’s Radiolab is an excellent radio show/podcast. Radiolab describes itself as a show where “the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” I highly, highly recommend it.

The episode “In the Running” talks about Diane Van Deren, an ultra-runner who has won several 50- and 100-mile races. Because of a seizure disorder, a large chunk of her temporal lobe was surgically removed. Importantly, the temporal lobe helps us to understand time and space. After the surgery, Diane developed short-term memory loss. Spatial and temporal reasoning became more difficult for her. But when she started ultra-running, these deficits gave her an important advantage: she loses track of time. To listen to the episode, click the audio player below (episode starts 3 minutes in):

Diane’s story illustrates how our perception of time can impact our lives. When we are happy or busy, time seems to fly. But when we feel bored or anxious, the seconds feel like hours. Similarly, some people get burnt out if they eat the same lunch day after day after day after… Sometimes forgetting is a good thing. According to Diane, she has greater endurance because she can’t remember how long she’s been running. What if, like Diane, you lost track of how long you’d been doing something? Would you be happier? More productive?

In psychology, these experiences are called flow. When we experience flow, we are fully focused on a task and feel productive. Flow states are related to happiness, better performance on a task, and personal growth. One component of flow is that people lose track of how much time has passed. In a flow state, people focus almost exclusively on the task at hand. The task often requires skill/expertise and also provides a challenge. My own flow experiences come when I’m analyzing data or writing the results of a study. For me, these tasks require concentration and effort, but I can make a lot of process without stopping. These experiences leave me feeling productive, confident, refreshed, and excited to do more work.

But flow experiences don’t just happen when people are alone. Social flow can occur when we do an activity side-by-side with others (e.g., running in a group) and when we interact with them (e.g., playing basketball). A recent study found that teams performed better when they experience more flow (Heyne, Pavlas, & Salas, 2011). They accomplish more, make fewer mistakes, and report a greater shared understanding of the task and team. In addition to being more productive, another study found that people enjoyed social flow more than solitary flow (Walker, 2010). This was particularly true for social tasks that involved more interaction and cooperation. Walker suggests a number of reasons for this, including the possibility of emotional contagion. But another possibility exists. When we interact with others, it may be easier to let ourselves lose track of time.

Diane Van Deren’s story raises some interesting questions about flow. Is it that our intense concentration leads us to lose track of time while we’re experiencing flow? Or, do we need the ability to lose track of time before flow can happen? In some professions, “protected time” allows the opportunity for flow to take place. A great example of this is Google’s 20% Time, which allows Google engineers to spend 20% of their time working on any project that interests them. For Diane, these “flow experiences” are not a choice. But I think her story says something important about what we can achieve when we change our perceptions of time.

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