Expanding time with slow thinking

Dr Sam Peng, Head of Economics

Précis: The subjective nature of time perception suggests that we can expand students’ brain time in learning by engaging them in more slow thinking.


Today is a special day for the current Year 12 students. It is a day on which they celebrate growth, maturity, friendship, learning, independence, responsibility and a new beginning. Today is also a special day for their teachers, as waves of joy, pride, happiness and memory will gently tap their hearts. At this very special time for farewell and reflection, I wonder how our students will remember their education at Brisbane Girls Grammar School. Will their memories play out as a rapid time lapse of sunrise and sunset in this vibrant learning space, a slow motion of some unforgettable, enlightening moments, or a montage of both? What determines how moments of their learning experience are processed in their brain and contribute to their cognitive development? How can we expand the seemingly limited time to add more richness to this learning process, which will eventually become part of our common memory?

These questions have been lingering in my mind since I started teaching two Year 12 classes at the start of this year. Like many other teachers, I counted how many days and lessons I had left with my students, wishing I knew how to bend time, until one day, a radio conversation about novel writing inspired me. ‘What is the key to writing good novels?’ the host asked. The answer provided was ‘altering time’—an answer so unexpected, yet so true. When we read a good novel, sometimes time seems to ‘freeze’, all the details happening in a few seconds seeming to span hours and days. The same technique is mastered and perfected by the film industry, where time can be ‘sped up’ via a time lapse or made slower in a slow motion montage. If the perception of time is subjective, how can we stretch our students’ brain time in learning and produce ‘slow motion’ teaching moments?

 Brain time

Neuroscientific research has largely demystified the way our brain perceives time. As Eagleman (2009) put it, ‘the days of thinking of time as a river—evenly flowing, always advancing—are over; time perception, just like vision, is a construction of the brain’. Our perception of time however is not constructed based on single sensory information, such as taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. Instead, it is underpinned by a collaboration of multiple neural mechanisms. This means our ‘sense’ of time is established by information presented to us in a particular way, as determined by our brain (Eagleman, 2009).

Experience associated with rich and detailed information will appear ‘longer’ in our memory, because it takes more time and resources for our brain to process. To be more precise, it is fresh information that makes time feel elongated. Fresh information often does not come in a form directly understandable to our brain. It needs to be processed and re-organised in a form that makes sense to us. Conversely, when receiving familiar information, our brain does not have to work very hard because the information has been processed previously. So the same amount of time will actually feel shorter than it would otherwise. This, according to Eagleman (2009), explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older. The more familiar the world becomes, the less new information our brain ‘writes down’, and the more quickly time seems to pass.

The above findings do not contradict our belief in the value of routine activities. In fact, it is found that deliberate practice does in fact ‘make perfect’ by rewiring our brain for better performance (Shen, 2014). However, to make each lesson worth more in terms of brain time, engaging students in some hard brainwork with new information and calling their attention to details is necessary. There is however one more complication—our brain is programmed to minimise effort by engaging predominantly in fast thinking (Kahneman, 2012).

 Slow thinking

Fast and slow thinking were concepts put forward by Economics Nobel Prize winner, Professor Daniel Kahneman. He classifies our thinking into two alternating and cooperating modes: System 1, also known as intuitive or fast thinking; and System 2, slow thinking. Most of the time, our brain operates in System 1, an automatic and quick process that requires little or no effort and is energy-efficient. This process involves storing and accessing knowledge in memory without intention or effort. This is an interesting contradiction to our traditional understanding of time. Generally, we believe we can save time by doing things faster. However, when it comes to thinking, being fast means less effortful mental activities, and less perceived time by our brain. In addition, fast thinking is prone to biases because it operates on impressions, intuitions, intentions and feelings, rather than logical reasoning and statistical understanding (Kahneman, 2012).

System 2 is responsible for effortful mental activities, such as complex computations, validating complex logical arguments, critical thinking and constructing thoughts in a series of orderly steps. Slow thinking is activated ‘when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer’, or ‘when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains’ (Kahneman, 2012:24).

To expand brain time in learning, we need to engage in more slow thinking. However, slow thinking consumes more energy and can only be activated when the conditions are right. To mobilise slow thinking, we need to ‘disturb’ the cognitive ease by asking questions that fast thinking cannot answer; we need to challenge the established understanding of the world by making inquiries into constant changes; and very importantly, we need to maintain focus, because once attention is withdrawn, slow thinking is disrupted (Kahneman, 2012).

Looking back, I am glad that we have lived another year to the fullest. I have peace of mind that the ‘magic’ of slow thinking has already been deeply rooted in our pedagogy and daily practices. Looking forward, our graduates will enter a world where technological development and value changes will be more rapid and radical than in the past. Stimuli everywhere will compete for their attention. At the same time, the constant bombardment of new, sometimes inflammatory or even false information via the media, social media and our devices can become so regular and mundane that many of us feel compelled to ‘switch off’, and forget to interrogate it rigorously for factual accuracy. I believe our girls have been given the space and time to develop the habit of thinking slowly, so that they can evaluate, absorb and appreciate the depths of the world around them.

It is finally time to say goodbye. When I see the happy tears on the faces of our Year 12 students, their reluctant steps leaving the school gate, their vigorously waving hands, my vision starts to blur. I know another year of rich memory is deeply saved in our common memory.



Eagleman, D. M. (2009). Brain time. Retrieved from https://www.edge.org/conversation/brain-time

Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Shen, J. (2014). Why Practice Actually Makes Perfect: How to Rewire Your Brain for Better Performance. Retrieved from https://blog.bufferapp.com/why-practice-actually-makes-perfect-how-to-rewire-your-brain-for-better-performance