Concentrate hard enough – and make time fly

Joseph Magliano
Joseph Magliano

You’re on deadline, totally immersed in a project at work or school. You glance at your wristwatch and can’t believe where the time has gone.

There’s a reason for this time-flies phenomenon, and it has to do with an individual’s working memory capacity, according to NIU researchers.

“Individuals with high working memory capacity devote so much of their attention to a task at hand that they lose track of their internal clocks,” says Joseph Magliano, an NIU professor of psychology who specializes in learning and memory.

“When fully focused,” he says, “time flies.”

Magliano and his doctorate student, James Woehrle, demonstrated how attention warps the perception of time in a study published earlier this year in the journal, Acta Psychologica.

Working memory capacity is the aspect of thought responsible for simultaneous storage and processing of information. It allows us to juggle mental tasks, focus on what’s most important and act in the moment. A high working memory capacity has been shown to be closely related to high IQ and academic performance.

The researchers used a standardized psychological test to measure the working memory capacity of 99 NIU undergraduates, and then divided the students into two groups of high capacity and low capacity. Next the students were directed to detect errors in simple math problems using as much time as needed.

The study participants later were asked to find mistakes in a similar set of problems. As a secondary task, they were instructed to signal when they thought either two minutes or four minutes had passed (no watches or cell phones were allowed).

Participant accuracy on the math problems was roughly the same when working untimed or for two minutes.

James Woehrle
James Woehrle

But something surprising happened on the four-minute tests.

Those who had scored highest for working memory capacity were significantly more accurate in solving the math problems but did poorly at determining how much time had elapsed. They typically exceeded the allotted duration – or lost track of time.

Participants with lower scores for working memory capacity were less accurate on the math problems but better at keeping track of the time.

“Generally it would have been thought that individuals with high working memory would perform better at both tasks – the mathematical problems and keeping track of time,” Woehrle says. “But our results suggest an interesting tradeoff, which we had hypothesized.

“We showed that an individual’s ability to control his or her attention affects how he or she perceives the passage of time,” he adds. “Since the math problems were clearly identified as the primary task, the findings appear to support other research suggesting that individuals with higher working memory capacity have better attention control.”

The researchers believe the experiment results would be even more pronounced with more difficult and time-consuming tasks and that people who possess high working memory capacity are likely to experience the time-flies phenomenon more often.

“The punch line is it gives people with a high working memory an excuse for being late,” Woehrle laughs.

The study was conducted to learn more about the impact of working memory capacity on academic performance.

“We think one reason struggling students may struggle is because they are easily distracted, and that they could actually get distracted by the passage of time,” Magliano says.

Magliano adds that the study has several practical implications for testing and learning:

  • Untimed assessments might better measure the full potential of a student.
  • Short-duration tasks or assignments will help minimize distractions.
  • For those who easily lose focus, work and study areas should be free of clutter or noise disruptions.
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