Your perception of time influences your creativity

In The River of Consciousness esteemed author and neurologist Oliver Sacks writes on the differences between "personal" time and "clock" time.

Undoubtedly you can recognize to the concept: personal time is the time we perceive as time passing—as entirely subjective observation—while clock time is what exists outside our own perception. One is a shared time while the other is generated almost entirely in our own, individual minds. As Sacks describes it:

"I have occasionally, it seems to me, lived a whole life between my first alarm, at 5:00 a.m., and my second alarm, five minutes later."

It's amazing how our minds perceive time in this way. Those who experience the pains of boredom know all-too-well how personal time can seem to slow to a crawl.

And anyone who has experienced what psychologist and creativity expert Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls "flow"—when we're so focused on a task time seems to flash by almost instantly, without our awareness of it having done so. While reading Sacks River of Consciousness I immediately thought of flow and how our perception of time equates to creativity.

We perceive time differently than what's on the clock for good reason: our minds are constantly processing millions of bits of information. Our consciousness is the mechanism which filters out irrelevant information or draws our attention to vital details. You may learn to tune-out the constant buzz of a busy room, but the moment someone mentions your name you can tune-into whoever might be calling out.

When we're bored our minds need stimulus so our consciousness loosens itself and stretches out time, where when we're focused our minds need to shut out stimulus, therefore decreasing our ability to perceive the passing of time.

This functioning—of loosening inhibitions when it comes to boredom and restricting them when it comes to states of flow—is also what occurs during creative thinking. We're more inclined to come up with many divergent ideas when we are open to stimulus and allowing our minds to run wild, as they do when we're bored.

When it comes to states of flow, we're less likely to be able to generate many ideas because we'll be much more oriented around convergent concepts: focusing in rather than opening up our minds. In either case the results are caused primarily by the control of endorphins in the mind. More endorphins leads to rapid time while fewer restricts time.

Each end of the spectrum leads to different results, the middle—or neutral—state is a balance, Sacks explains: 

"Physiologically, neural normality reflects a balance between excitatory and inhibitory systems in the brain, a balance which, in the absence of drugs or damage, has a remarkable latitude and resilience."

We can see the creative effects of a loosened, uninhibited, consciousness when we observe someone taking drugs or caffeine; clock time remains the same yet the mind races through possibilities.

The inverse is also true through similar means: those who take downers or consume alcohol experience a dulling of time.

Are there other means we can get the same results—of altering our perception of time to benefit our creativity—without having to digest drugs or alcohol?

The answer is undoubtedly yes: we can put ourselves into situations where we're bored by choice, removing easy no-brainer activities from our routines and even leaving our phones in another room for a while. There are other means too however, as Csíkszentmihályi explains in his book Finding Flow:

"What one needs to learn to control attention... In principle any skill or discipline one can master on one’s own will serve: meditation and prayer if one is so inclined; exercise, aerobics, martial arts for those who prefer concentrating on physical skills. Any specialization or expertise that one finds enjoyable and where one can improve one’s knowledge over time. The important thing, however, is the attitude toward these disciplines. If one prays in order to be holy, or exercises to develop strong pectoral muscles, or learns to be knowledgeable, then a great deal of the benefit is lost.
"The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention."