New research has helped to explain why and how the perception of time changes – while time can pass quickly in some instances and painfully slowly in others.
People who have been in car accidents, for example, report that everything happened in slow motion. Thanks to this slowing down of time they can remember the car hurtling towards them, the look of the hood crumpling under the force of the collision. The glass windshield spiders out slowly and they can remember how its patterns were formed. The coffee thrown upwards towards the roof of the car, then coming down in a long, thick stream. It is not that time has actually slowed down, but that people are so busy recording each and every detail of such an important event, that it simply seems that way.
Others wake up to find that it’s Friday again and find it hard to remember where the rest of the week went.
A trip to a new destination can seem like hours, but surprisingly time flies on the way back.
Short-term memory is the key to all these phenomena, these researchers say. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who studies time, clarified:
Taking time to be mindful and focusing fully on the present moment — in other words, actively noticing new things — can actually slow down our brain’s perception of time. And just as powerfully, mindless distraction can easily create the feeling that we’re losing whole hours, days and months (Huffington Post, 8.23.13)Routine, in other words, limits the possibility of acquiring new information and the brain, lulled into a pleasant familiarity, drifts from one day to the next without the memory interrupters that force active reflection.
Older people report the quick passage of time most often. Their lives are necessarily circumscribed by routine because of physical debility, fewer friends, and the increasing difficult of moving around and about. Without changes in perspective and welcome departures from routine, one day does indeed seem like every other. Older people feel this sense of the quickness of time most acutely because the loss is irretrievable. Their lives have been lived, and the accelerated passage of those few years left is depressing.
Eagleman adds another dimension:
The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. ‘This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,’ Eagleman said — why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass (Huffington Post, op.cit.)
Richard A. Friedman writing in the New York Times 7.21.13) echoes the same sentiments:
Why does time seem to speed up as we age? Even the summer solstice — the longest, sunniest day of the year — seems to have passed in a flash.A colleague of mine at the World Bank reported the acute sense of the quick passage of time during what was for him the busiest period in his life. Each day as he walked down the corridor to his office, he looked at the same picture on the wall – a rural Indian woman pulling water from a well. “There she was every day”, he said, “her back bent under the weight of the water, her sari pulled over her head to protect her from the sun, her hands tightly gripping the rope.”
No less than the great William James opined on the matter, thinking that the apparent speed of time’s passage was a result of adults’ experiencing fewer memorable events:
“Each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to content-less units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.”
Still a young man, he was still discouraged at this depressingly fast loss of months, and decided to change his routine. Instead of getting off on the sixth floor, he got off on the seventh, walked through the unfamiliar Infrastructure Department, and took the stairs down to his office. He repeated the drill at the end of the day, this time taking the stairs to the fifth floor, walking through the Human Resources, then taking the elevator to the lobby.
As much as he varied his routine, time still passed quickly. The minor disruption of varying his incoming and outgoing routes did little to slow time.
What he did not realize was that his work days, although different, challenging, and demanding, were in themselves routine. Although he worked on different problems every day, met different people, crafted new solutions to thorny issues, one day was no different from any other. The diversity of activities within his workday mattered little. It was the job itself – like any – which was routine and time-accelerating.
My colleague went on to explain how time slowed only when he was in African airports, delayed for hours for no explained reason, sure to miss valuable European connections to get home, at risk from malarial mosquitoes, hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable, watching the clock hand move click by click from one minute to the next. The wait was painful and interminable. Time didn’t move. No one but a masochist, he said, would ever wish for a world of such purgatorial slowness.
Some modern researchers stray from strictly empirical study and suggest that the search for temporal stimulation can have benefits far beyond simply disrupting routine. Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago, suggests the following:
The essence of mindfulness — a practice with roots in ancient Buddhist philosophy that’s becoming increasingly popular in the Western world — is cultivating a focused attention on the here and now, which science has shown can help our brains to store more information and thereby alter our perceptions of how fast time is passing.
“Mindfulness allows people to appreciate their surroundings and can lead to the feeling that time is passing more slowly”, Meyers says. “Paying attention to events that are pleasant or interesting certainly can enhance our mood and allows us to savor positive experiences” (Huffington Post, op.cit.)
George couldn’t believe his luck. A beautiful thirty-something had fallen in love with him, and despite the risk to his very stable, long marriage, there was no way that he could keep away from his lovely Marianne. The many hours he waited for his Saturday tryst passed slowly and painfully. He checked every clock in the office and his watch every few minutes. He went for coffee every few hours, hoping for a distraction. He tried to turn his attention to a thorny problem which he hoped would take his mind off his wait. All to no avail. Time – without any acquisition of new memories; without any of the diversions thought to speed time – passed just as interminably. Nor did his familiar routine of emails, meetings, phone calls, budgets, and conferences do any good.
Yet no sooner did Saturday arrive than it was over. As he walked out the door of her apartment and kissed her good-bye, he said, “But I just got here”. The eight hours of delight had passed almost without notice. No new memories, nor any confining routine.
Was it really the routine of George’s Saturdays (the dash from Dupont Circle through the park, running the lights at 19th and Hyde, parking, speed-walking the quarter-mile to Marianne’s apartment, kisses, champagne, and hours in bed) that chased the clock? Could it even have been the sex, very routine if you counted the same foreplay, the same kisses, the same positions, the same cigarettes as routine.
Yet the days with Marianne were never routine. Although the motions certainly were, the emotional adventure was anything but routine. Every day he learned something new about her – intriguing bits of her past or sexual quirks he had never noticed. If the mindfulness theories held any water, is Saturday’s should have slowed, not accelerated to infinity.
It is obvious that expectation slows time and satisfaction accelerates it. Anyone who has awaited a vacation, the arrival of grandchildren, Christmas morning, or a cinq-a-sept knows the feeling. Days of painful anticipation, but babies, gifts, sun-and-sand gone before you know it.
Eagleman noted in presenting his argument that children have no sense of the the passage of time because they have not yet been consumed by the busy routines that speed it up. Yet where does this romantic idea of the lazy days of summer come from? Children are more anxious for Christmas, more aware of the shortening days of summer and the start of school, painfully missing a father or mother on a business trip as any adult is for his or her expectations. Children simply do not articulate their perceptions as adults do.
Children are as subject to anticipation-expectation-satisfaction-disappointment as anyone. Neither routine nor the acquisition of new memories has anything to do with the passage of time.
There is no doubt that routine is the main culprit. I find it depressing to make tea every morning. Didn’t I just warm the pot, heat the milk, select the tea, pour the water, fit the cozies, and carry the tray to the living room? But the acquisition of new memories is not always the counter to accelerated time. Pleasure, satisfaction, happiness – because they are always so temporal if not fleeting – are the real villains.
One of my favorite movies is Nosferatu by Werner Herzog. In Herzog’s interpretation Count Dracula, played by Klaus Kinski, is humanized and laments the fact that he can never die. He envies mortals and their loves, disappointments, and passions. For him eternal life – endless time – is nothing but dark shadows.
Life is merciful, Dracula says, because it ends. In a way he is right. Most people simply get tired of time and how to outsmart it. They simply wear out in the struggle.