Why Time Feels Elongated When Travelling

Clocks and watches and clockworks.
Photo by Mobilos via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been noticing something very peculiar about time. When I’m deep in my regular routine, working a day-job and seeing the same people at the same places under the usual circumstances, it feels like time is passing very quickly. Life feels shorter and contracted. Time ticks by evermore briskly. A whole week, or a month, can elapse at Godspeed. It is something we all experience.

Yet, when I travel to new places, and see and do new things, time feels somehow expanded, stretched, and elongated in a very positive way. There is a sense that more time is available, and is elapsing, than is usual. A few days up to a week can feel like a fortnight. An entire month can feel like three.

The intensity of this phenomenon varies.  But no matter what kind of journey I’m on, whether it’s a long-weekend away, a trip of a few weeks, or a longer sojourn, the time that elapses always seems to feel double or triple that indicated by the calendar.

I was recently in the U.K. for two and a half months living in the city of Leeds – a place I had never before visited. Almost everything was novel about the experience. By the end of my stay, I felt as though half a year had elapsed. It’s a thrilling and uncanny experience to feel like you’ve been handed a slight extension to life.

We know from scientific research in a field known as quantum gravity that time is neither uniform nor experienced in the same way by everyone everywhere. Contrary to our learning and conditioning, time can and does elapse differently relative to context. The way we experience it depends on the circumstances.

Author Carlo Rovelli writes in his recent book The Order of Time that time goes by faster the higher you are; it moves slower the faster you are physically moving; that it has no fixed forward directionality; there is no “present” apart from nanoseconds between past and future; and the further you travel from another person, the more time separates notions of a shared “now.”

“In the 2014 film Interstellar,” writes Rovelli in the Financial Times, “the hero travels to the vicinity of a black hole. On his return to Earth, he finds his daughter older than himself: she is an elderly lady, he is still middle-aged.

“This is not Hollywood fantasy, it is how the world truly works. The film’s scientific consultant Kip Thorne has since received the Nobel Prize in physics for his role in detecting the gravitational waves emitted by merging black holes. He knows his topic. If we do not experience similar time distortions in our daily life, it is only because here on Earth they are too small for us to notice.”

Though too slight to perceive, the time distortions Rovelli mentions nonetheless demonstrate that time is relative and malleable. Where its relativity matters most in our day-to-day reality is in the context of our own experiences and consciousness. This is proven by our observations and comments regarding time. We often describe time as “dragging,” or “flying by” or “standing still.” In adulthood, with its incessant busyness and tyranny of routines, it is common for time to feel like it is escaping us entirely – running away and taking much of our lives along with it.

I’ve been wondering what it is about travel, or about seeing and doing new things, that makes time feel more like it is giving – rather than taking.

A dry stone wall over the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales, England, UK.
Photo: John Zada

While on that U.K. sojourn I went on a 3-day hike with my partner through the rolling countryside of Yorkshire Dales National Park in the north of England. As usual, by the end of the trip it felt like at least a week had elapsed. When I asked myself what happened during the trip that was different from my regular routine at home. A few things stood out.

She and I were constantly problem-solving, trying to determine the correct route through the park (the trail would sometimes fade or vanish). Our surroundings were always changing as we moved through different landscapes. Farmland and pastures would quickly give way to forested ravines that changed to hilly, windswept moors which gave way to roads and village squares. It was as if theatre sets were being constantly rolled in and out in succession. We saw lots of animals, insects, trees, plants and flowers. Many people crossed our path, some of whom we actually met and conversed with.

In other words: we were fully engaged with life, taking in lots of new stimulus and learning at almost every turn. Our lives were “full” in a way that is not the norm back home.

It occurred to me that if time is partly a register of the amount of change we experience from one moment to the next (as Aristotle defined it), then the more mental stimuli, especially novel stimuli, one takes in, the more time seems to unfold – thereby lengthening our experience of it. Put another way: we may unconsciously quantify time based on how much, or little, we learn. When we are seeing new things and having novel experiences, time feels expanded or elongated relative to our normal lives, which are by comparison filled with the familiar.

So, why does time feel elongated, like we’ve lived two or three times our normal lifespans, when travelling? Because in a very real sense, we are doing more living. We are learning new things, using our brains more, processing new patterns or thinking differently to address new situations. Our experiences are denser and richer than when we are re-experiencing the same patterns again and again as part of our regular routines, which are essentially journeys along neuronal ruts akin to well-worn highways. When we’re in routine mode, time, and our lives together with it, feel like a runaway train that is slipping away.

This has potentially big implications. If we try our utmost to fill our time with real learning and new experiences, whether at home or while travelling, then perhaps life won’t feel quite as short as the famous refrain suggests it is.

This may also be tied to the idea, made famous by one of Roman philosopher Seneca’s books, that life is long if you know how to use it.