Friday, March 30, 2012

Why Does Time Fly?

It is common knowledge that time seems to pass at different rates. We all know the old saw, "Time flies when you're having fun". And we also know that, as we get older, the days seem to slip by faster and faster. I'm old enough now, that I hear that complaint a lot. Every year ... shorter than the one before. Why? We know that the Earth is not really lapping the sun at a faster rate. We know that it is our perceptions that have changed. But what exactly causes this changed perception, and can anything be done to slow the calendar down a bit?

I have good news. Not only have I figured out why time goes by faster each year for most of us, but I can tell you how to slow it down. You can make your years - from now on - go by as slowly as they did back in High School. And you can enrich your life while doing it.

So why does it happen? There are a couple of theories out there. The one I hear most has to do with fractions. The idea is that, as we grow older, each passing year represents a smaller fraction of our life in total. So at fifty, a year is only a fiftieth of my total life, while at twelve, a year is a full twelfth of the whole thing. We all remember the seemingly endless weeks leading up to summer vacation. Back then, life moved like a glacier set in concrete.

The 'fraction' thing sounds like a pretty reasonable explanation. I once thought that myself. It's possible that I even made it up. I remember saying it to people, but not where I first heard it. But no matter ... because it's nonsense. Forget about the problem of why it would be that our brains would be ticking off the hours of our lives like a stop-watch and then calculating each according to it's comparative fractional value. Forget about that. In order to disprove this theory one need only find that twelve-year-old and ask him. Ask first in the late spring. Ask if the year is flying by. Then ask, in the fall, if summer seemed long or short. You know the answers you'll get. If that all takes too long, here's a Cliff's Notes version. Ask on Friday morning and again Sunday at bedtime. The week will be dragging endlessly on, while the weekend will have come and gone in the wink of an eye.

What makes that happen? The answer lies in understanding a couple of things. First we have to consider why one year might seem very long and another very short. I propose that the only way of gauging that is by looking back across it while it is still recent history. Any considerable span of time is made up of many, many days, hours, moments. The more of them that we can remember, the fuller will seem the span which contains them. And if it seems chock-full of days and moments, it will seem like a long span. If on the other hand, we don't vividly remember an awful lot of moments, it will - being sparsely populated by memories - seem to have gone by quickly.

So what would cause a year to contain so many memorable days that it seems like it must have been an extra-long year? Are you ready? Trauma! I don't mean the kind of trauma that sends you to a hospital by helicopter, or into the arms of therapy. I am talking about traumatic memory. Anything that makes you feel slightly afraid, is entered into your long-term memory. This is an evolutionary adaptation. It is, to a creature living in a dangerous world, of great value to remember when and where that creature encountered danger, so that it might avoid the danger next time round. Almost stepped off a ledge? Better etch that into the permanent record. Ate a flower that looked good but made your guts twist into knots? Don't forget what that looked like. Snakes like to dangle from trees, bears hole up in caves. All of this info needs never to be forgotten.

On the other hand, for those long days of summer where one had only to eat from nearby trees, and occasionally mate, or wrastle with the younguns? Pleasant, but uneventful. Not much point in wasting space on the hard-drive. We inherited the basic structures of those old primate brains, and that is why some time flies by and some drags. It has everything to do with how much of the time contained within any span was fraught with tension, thereby rating moments stored in the brain permanently.

For our twelve-year-old, the whole school year is tension. There are things to learn that don't seem learnable, tests always looming, the confusing mystery of girls, and likely bullies in the schoolyard and imminent failure on the ball-field. He's got a long-term memory working overtime. Summer is a lark by comparison. You see my point.

It isn't only danger that can etch a memory deep. Nor is a permanently stored memory always a bad memory. All that is required is that, whatever you are doing, it takes you far enough outside your comfort zone that your mammal brain captures it into memory just to be on the safe side.

Imagine that you are fifteen and trying out for the cheerleading squad. Imagine that you do great and go home victorious. You will never forget that, and you might think that gives the lie to my theory. But it doesn't. Even though that was a day of triumph and joy ... it was also a day wherein you risked rejection and disappointment. Chances are that you will remember in great detail, the mental processes that gripped you in the days leading up to that pivotal moment. You may remember the moment itself, and the heightened reality directly after. But probably the day after cheerleader try-outs is now lost to memory.

To keep it simple, it's like this: Whatever you do that takes you out of your comfort zone - either voluntarily and excitedly, or due to misfortune - will be remembered. The more impact that it has on you emotionally, the longer it will stay with you (excepting, of course, severe trauma that leads to some sort of self-protective blocking). You'll remember the first overwhelming joy at meeting a loved one, but not every moment that you later spent with that same loved one. One moment knocked you out of your comfort zone, however joyously, and the latter moments were within your comfort zone and didn't trigger the internal tape machine.

So, it's the number of moments per year that you can enter into long-term memory, that will determine how long that year will seem upon reflection.

And if your years are going by faster and faster, it is probably because you have worked at making your life run smoother and more predictably. That's what we mostly do. We are more confident in our jobs, more comfortable in our relationships, more repetitious in our day-to-day habits. We have engineered lives for ourselves that insure a safe and snug cocoon firmly within our most comfortable zone. That is why we turn around and the summer is gone and we don't know where it went.

You are probably way ahead of me by now. You are probably thinking of all the things that you've wanted to do but put off because to attempt them scares you a little. Those are, of course, the very things that will slow down the merry-go-round.

As we get older, we think a little bit more often of the end. I can't speak for you, but I don't want my life to have just been a rote, careful walk through a predetermined course of action. I am terrified at the thought of getting to the last day, and knowing that I let it all get away from me. I look back on vast tracts of time and barely remember what I was doing during those years. It's almost a Rip Van Winkle sort of feeling. My beard is gray. My skin is loose. What happened?

But I am pleased to say that I have gotten the clock slowed down considerably in the last few years. I did it by stepping (and by being pushed) out beyond the confines of my own predictability. And I can't see any reason why I can't stay just enough off-balance to keep the memory-camera firing away and storing.

I'm not talking about grand bucket-list gestures here. You will not see me on your way up Everest. Just a little more of what I think I might, and a little less of what I know I can. That should do the trick.

Dave Morrison March 30, 2012

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