You could blame (and probably have, multiple times) the traffic, your alarm, maybe even a leaky pipe or your stubborn toddler's refusal to wear shoes. But if you're the type who is perpetually late for things, you're no doubt always in need of fresh excuses for your tardiness. Science might be able to help!

A fascinating new study delves into how our brains conceive of distance and time and comes to some very strange -- but potentially useful -- conclusions.

Your brain is a really strange place.

The team out of the University of California, Berkeley and University College London tested how people mentally estimate distance and travel times by having 20 foreign students in London draw, in detail, the neighborhood surrounding their residence.

The researchers then compared these drawings made from memory with satellite maps. The first conclusion they came too was expected and entirely in line with previous research: the more familiar we are with a particular route, the longer we estimate it to be. Scientists think this is because, as we memorize more details about a particular stretch of road, we have more landmarks to squeeze into our mental maps. We, essentially, stretch distances to fit them all in.

OK, fascinating but not groundbreaking. But then things got weird. The researchers theorized, rationally enough, that because the students saw their much worn day-to-day paths as longer than they really are, they would also overestimate the time it takes to walk them. But they found the exact opposite.

The British Psychological Society Research Digest blog sums up the strangeness of this finding: "the students expected to arrive sooner at destinations reached via familiar routes that their own sketches suggested were longer than less familiar routes. "

Thanks for the excuse, science!

Huh. What might be driving our apparently totally contradictory internal understanding of space and time? The short answer is no one really knows, though the researchers speculate that humans have two separate neural systems for estimating space and time. But while neuroscientists work on puzzling out the mystery, BPS notes the findings have one immediate practical application -- explaining yet another late arrival to your boss.

"For now the everyday implication is that we are especially likely to underestimate the time it takes us to walk the routes with which we are most familiar - like to our school or office. Your new excuse for tardiness - 'Sorry I'm late sir, my brain's got a problem judging ETAs for familiar routes'," quips BPS. No guarantee it's going to fly with your supervisor, though.

Or, if you're looking to finally fix your tardiness problem rather than find ever more out-of-the-box excuses for it, than plenty of advice exists to help you stop being perpetually late once and for all.

Published on: Nov 8, 2016