Time Slows Down When You Look at a Great Photo, Study Finds

A man with curly hair, seen from behind, wearing a gray hoodie, viewing a series of framed black and white photographs on a white wall in an art gallery.

Memorable photographs make time pass more slowly, that’s according to a research paper that examined people’s temporal fluctuations as they looked at different images.

It has long been accepted by science that a person’s sense of time really does change according to what they are experiencing (time flies when you’re having fun, et cetera). But according to an article published in Nature Human Behaviour by a team from George Mason University that extends to looking at photographs.

They found that viewing a memorable image feels like it lasts longer versus looking at a less memorable one and it might be down to the way brains store more information on something deemed important.


The team, led by cognitive neuroscientist Martin Weiner, showed the participants different scenes from empty rooms to a stadium filled with fans. The images were shown for between 300 milliseconds and one second with each participant stating if the time spent looking at the picture was short or long. The test subjects reported that the images of larger scenes appeared to expand time while cluttered spaces, such as a messy garage, contracted time.

The Economist reports that the result was at odds with previous research that suggested cluttered images would stretch time rather than shrink it. So Weiner took images from a 60,000-strong data set that had all been ranked by memorability. For example, a man with flowers in his beard outranked a photo of a bush.

In this test, the more memorable images from the set seemed to lengthen the time for the dozens of participants. Furthermore, when the subjects were recalled to the lab the next day, they were better at remembering the pictures which slowed time down.

“The longer a person thought it had been [when they looked at the image] the previous day, the more likely they were to remember it,” Wiener tells the Scientific American. “Even though the images were all presented for the same amount of time.”

The same images were also fed to a neural network that is designed to spot objects in images at the same speeds a human does. The algorithm was faster at processing the more memorable images and while this may be counter-intuitive, the researchers believe that this might explain why time expands for humans.

“In other words, memorable images may be memorable because they’re just easy for our systems to process them,” Wiener adds.

It still isn’t clear exactly why time perceptions are altered but the team believes it may have to do with how the brain deals with incoming information. They suggest the brain slows down time to process more quickly. This is useful if a human comes face to face with a predator, Wiener tells The Economist.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.