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How Long is Long?

Mathematical Theories of Experiential Time

Dan McLaughlin

November 7, 2013

How Long is Long?

Mathematical Theories of Experiential Time
"Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems
like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems
like a minute. THATS relativity." -- Albert Einstein (Vohs,
217). Everyone knows that time seems to go faster or slower
depending on what you are doing. It is also common wisdom that
as people grow older, time seems to go by quicker. The
relationship between perceived time and chronological time is
effected these factors. Though merely a phenomenon of
perception, this idea is not beyond the realm of mathematical
and scientific enquiry. This paper presents two attempts to
create mathematical models of this phenomenon of perception.
The first model, the Nuhn-McLaughlin theory, relates the
perceived duration of a given time period to the chronological
age (that is, the actual age) of the observer. The second, the
Lemlich model, differs in that it does not show the relationship
of perception to chronological (actual) age, instead it shows
the relationship to the perceived age. In other words it looks
at how "how old you feel" relates to "how long time seems to
last". The Lemlich model also factors in the relative boredom or
enthrallment of the perceiver.
First, consider the simpler Nuhn-McLaughlin model. It
proposes that when counting age, we not assign the value of one

to each successive year, that is, 1+1+1+1=4 years old. Instead,

assign a smaller number to each successive year 1+1/2+1/3+... .
A child, between birth and their first birthday, experiences one
year of chronological time. In their second year, the child
experiences another chronological year. Yet on their second
birthday, it can be seen that the second year only lasted half
of their total life thus far. You could reasonably posit that it
would only seem half as long.
Thus the first year of our life receives a value of one,
the second year as one half, the third as one third and so

By this method a person's perceived age at the

(chronological) age of 20 would be would be 1+1/2+1/3+1/4+ ...

+1/19+1/20 = 3.6 years old. At the (chronological) age of 70,
approximately an average lifespan, their perceived age would be
1+1/2+1/3+1/4+ ... +1/69+1/70 = 4.9. The ratio of the perceived
ages 3.6 and 4.9 is 74%. According to this model we would
perceive that by age twenty, almost three quarters of our life
would be gone and that the subsequent 50 years would rush by 4
times as fast.
Robert Lemlich, in 1975, used calculus to develop a similar
equation which relates the perceived age of a person to the
perceived passage of time. In other words, how fast time seems
pass is related to how old you think you are, not how old you
really are. Lemlich describes his equation as follows.

Let R be the total real [chronological] time and S be

the total subjective [perceived] time. Then dR and dS
are small intervals of real time and subjective time
respectively. Thus, dS is how long dR feels.
Accordingly, dS decreases with S [perceived time]
(rather than R [chronological time]).(Lemlich 235)
Lemlich arrives at the equation: dS=K(dR/S). The expression
can be understood by assuming that dS is the perceived length of
a given year and dR is the chronological length of the year
(that is 1 year) and S is the total perceived age of the person.
K is a "proportionality constant" which Lemlich includes to
account for "any extended traumatic or unusual experiences" that
might change the perceived time.
Applying calculus Lemlich arrives at an equation for
"subjective expected total life". If you assume SD to be a
person's perceived age at the time of their death and RD to be
the chronological age at the time of their death:
S/SD=SQRT(R/RD). Thus if the average life expectancy of a person
is 70 chronological years and their chronological age is 40 we
see that, SQRT(40/70)=76% of their life will appear to have
passed instead of the chronological 40/70=57%.
Thus we see that by the Nuhn-McLaughlin theory that the
first 20 chronological years of a person's life consumes
approximately three quarters (74%) of a person's perceived life.

The Lemlich equation however, requires forty years to use up the

same perceived three quarters (76%) of a person's life.
Both of the above attempts provide a method of quantifying
the effects of a person's age to time perception but only the
Lemlich equation takes into account other factors by including
K, for "any extended traumatic or unusual experiences". We can
assume extreme periods of boredom or fascination with life to be
"traumatic or unusual".
Lemlich performed a study to test the accuracy of his
equation. He questioned 52 individuals whose chronological ages
ranged from approximately 18 to 59.
Each [person] was asked to estimate how much faster or
slower the years seemed to go by at the present time
of life compared with when he was approximately one
half his present age and when he was approximately one
quarter his present age.(237)
Lemlich's theory predicted that the relative passage of time
for one forth the present age would be 2.0 times as fast and for
one half age would be 1.41 times as fast. The results of the
study yielded 2.0 (0.26) and 1.5 (0.21) respectively, a
remarkably close outcome. The Nuhn-Mclaughlin theory predicted
4.0 and 2.0 respectively, a considerable difference.
Lemlich successfully modeled the relation of perceived time
to chronological time at least as regards the effects of age on

time perception. The lumping of the effects of boredom and

interest into a single factor "K" is less than satisfying.
Regardless of that, Lemlich demonstrated that even a
subjective concept of how long time "seems to be" can be modeled
with more success than we would have imagined.

Works Cited
Lemlich, Robert. "Subjective Acceleration Of Time With Aging."
Perceptual and Motor Skills 41.1 (1975): 235-38. Web.
Vohs, Kathleen D., and Brandon J. Schmeichel. "Self-regulation
and Extended Now: Controlling the Self Alters the
Subjective Experience of Time." Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology 85.2 (2003): 217-30. Web.

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