The neurobiology and psychology that connect summer vacation with your morning run

Time is relative. Remember how each day in grade school (especially summer days) seemed to last for an eternity? Ever notice how it seems to take forever to travel a new route on your bike, while the return trip along the same path is done in the blink of an eye?

Turns out, both of those things are connected and they have important implications for the nature of memory. There's a great summary of the science on this up at The Irish Times. It's written by William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork.

The key issue, according to Reville, is that the amount of information your brain can store during a given time period isn't really dependent on the length of that time period. You could store up a lot of new information during 10 minutes of a really interesting lecture. You might store only a little new information during 10 minutes of walking your dog along a path you know very well.

The higher the intensity, the longer the duration seems to be. In a classic experiment, participants were asked to memorise either a simple [a circle] or complex figure . Although the clock-time allocated to each task was identical, participants later estimated the duration of memorising the complex shape to be significantly longer than for the simple shape.

... [H]ere is a “guaranteed” way to lengthen your life. Childhood holidays seem to last forever, but as you grow older time seems to accelerate. “Time” is related to how much information you are taking in – information stretches time. A child’s day from 9am to 3.30pm is like a 20-hour day for an adult. Children experience many new things every day and time passes slowly, but as people get older they have fewer new experiences and time is less stretched by information. So, you can “lengthen” your life by minimising routine and making sure your life is full of new active experiences – travel to new places, take on new interests, and spend more time living in the present.

I think this also has some implications for my exercise routine. I am well aware that my ability to run any distance at all is heavily dependent on psychological factors. I am not one of those people who likes to go running in new places, along unfamiliar trails, because it has always made me feel like the distance was much, much longer — and, consequently, leads me to stop running and start walking sooner than I actually have to. I've had a lot more luck running on tracks and elliptical machines—situations where it seems to be easier for me to get into a zone and lose track of time. When I run that way, it's my physical limitations that matter, not my psychological ones.

Of course, I know a lot of people who feel exactly the opposite. Maybe, for those people, running in a routine situation, like a track, makes them start to think more about their day or what's going on around them, and processing all that information makes the workout seem longer. I'm not sure. But this is awfully interesting.

Read the rest of William Reville's piece at The Irish Times

Via Graham Farmelo

Image: RUN Hills Pullover in action!, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from lululemonathletica's photostream


  1. “Ever notice how it seems to take forever to travel a new route on your bike, while the return trip along the same path is done in the blink of an eye?”

    My experience has always been the reverse.

    1. I know a five mile ride on a street full of angry motorists is twice as long as a five mile ride on a quiet path.

  2. I’d much rather run a new place than the same places I usually run. Boredom with the familiar tends to make my runs seem longer. And I find a treadmill almost unbearable. So yeah, almost exactly opposite of Maggie.

  3. One of the characters in Catch-22 had the opposite theory: boredom makes time drag, thus he extended his lifespan by avoiding anything new or interesting.

  4. I also find this counterintuitive. For me the sensory input of running outdoors makes the time bearable, whereas being indoors on a dreadmill is many times as difficult.

    The same is true for my preferred sport, speed skating. Doing laps in a warehouse is deadening, but tearing up a poor, defenseless city is exhilarating. And the easiest place of all to skate for hours on end? Dancing with the taxis in Manhattan.

  5. Guess I’m all backwards, I prefer to walk (bad left knee, off-road motorcycle crash many years ago), prefer Spring and Fall when it’s not so hot and the sun doesn’t set so early yet, prefer evenings to mornings (and if the moon’s out, sometimes at night).

    My walks are fairly routine and I’ve yet to get bored, but then again I park in my local Oceanographic Institute and take the seaside trail, with TuneInRadio, usually KCRW or KEXP on the headphones.  Beautiful!

  6. There definitely something like this at play when it comes to exercise.   I’m seriously out of shape but have lost a lot of weight lately by riding an exercise bike (and eating better).  I’m physically unable to do more than 15 or 20 minutes on the bike by itself.  My mind is filled with how much I hate this, how much it hurts, and how tired I’m getting.  After 20 low-intensity minutes, I’m sure I’ve been on the bike for 2 hours.

    To succeed, I have to take my mind completely out of the equation.  I distract it.  I put on a series of porn clips (yes, I’m serious) and play them on a video screen right in front of me.  I don’t look at the timer on the bike.  I just ride for as long as the clips run.  I use short clips with mixed running times.  It’s easy to set up the number of clips and their running times to a set goal number of minutes in the media player playlist.

    Via this method, my mind takes no notice of the fact that my body is working.  I can now blast through 35 minutes of hard pedaling and be drenched in sweat when the porn compilation ends and I go “What?  It’s over?  That wasn’t so bad.”

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