Time perception depends on how quickly the brain can process incoming information. Scientists have attempted to measure it by showing animals pulses of light, which start slowly and then speed up. There comes a point when the light is flashing so quickly, that it looks as though it is on permanently. Carefully placed brain electrodes can reveal when this moment occurs.

Studies show that smaller animals with faster metabolisms can detect higher frequencies of flickering lights than chunkier, slower animals. Just like Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix, movements and events may seem to unfold more slowly.

Salamanders and lizards, it seems, perceive time more slowly than cats and dogs. And while this may help to explain the infuriating ability of flies to elude rolled-up newspapers, it also raises an important question: why?

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense for animals that need to respond quickly – for example, to evade predators or catch fast-moving prey – to perceive time at finer resolutions, but what’s remarkable is that some animals appear to dial up or down their experience of time to suit their needs. Before they set off hunting, some swordfish, for example, boost blood flow to the brain, slowing their perception of time, and boosting the number of frames that they can process per second. It helps them to react more quickly.

Elsewhere, studies on mice have shown that time perception can be speeded up by stimulating dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. These findings have profound implications for people with dopamine-related disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Here, there is a reduction in dopamine, so sufferers could perhaps be impulsive because they perceive time more slowly.

Conversely, drugs that boost dopamine levels may be of use, because they speed up the perception of time. However, this is only a working hypothesis, so for now, only time will tell.

Asked by: Simon Bartlett, Leicester

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Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.