Friday February 12, 2010: Time flies. But why?

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A week or so ago, one of my co-workers at WMFE celebrated his 31st birthday.   He remarked that he couldn’t believe he was already 31.    I said, “Just wait til you get to be 55.  You’ll really wonder where the time went.  Time just goes faster and faster.”

I’m sure that anyone over 15 has noticed this phenomenon.  We started to discuss the fact that as one ages, time seems to speed up.  Remember how long an hour seemed when you were 6?  Remember how, in September, summer vacation may as well have been an entire lifetime away?   Ever wonder why that is?  I’ve always had my own theory.  When you’re 6 years old, one year is one-sixth of your entire life.  But when you’re, say, 55, it’s one-55th of your life.  And as you gather more years, your point of reference for one year changes, so they just seem to go faster.

By an amazing coincidence, a day or two after the conversation with my young colleague, NPR’s always entertaining science reporter Robert Krulwich did a fascinating feature on just this subject.  You can listen to it here.   Or, if you don’t have time to listen to it, you can read a short summary here.  Anyway,  it turns out that although I had come up with my theory on our perception of time independently, it is one that is shared by some psychologists who study this sort of thing.  But there are other theories as well. 

One is that our brain records first-time experiences differently than it records things we’ve done before.  This particularly holds true for exciting or novel experiences.  For example, think about a first day at work or school.  That first day seems to last forever.  But as the experience becomes routine, the time doesn’t seem to drag quite so much.  This is because, the theory holds, the first time you do something, your brain essentially writes everything down so that the next time… and the time after that… it just refers to its notes.  And that doesn’t take as long as it does to record everything in the first place.  So that makes the time go more quickly.

When you’re young, then, almost all experiences are new, so the brain has to use a lot of notebooks to get everything down.  But as you get older,  and the experiences are no longer new, the brain just cruises along, referring to its notes.  For me, I expect,  my brain is a lot like the rest of me: fairly disorganized.  So while some brains probably store the notebooks in neat, chronological order in file cabinets, I think my brain writes things down on whatever scrap of paper is handy, and then when its desk becomes too crowded, it just throws them in cardboard boxes and puts them in the brain’s attic.  Still, though, time keeps going more and more quickly.

A few years ago, I asked my Mom, who’s now 87, whether the perception of time ever evens out.  “Does it plateau as you get older?  Or does it just keep getting faster and faster?”   She said, no, it just keeps speeding up.  To me, that’s both scary and something of a relief.  Scary because it means that the days, months and years must start passing at a tremendous clip.  I’ll wake up someday soon and realize that I’m now 70.  And it’s a bit of a relief for the same reason.   If I am old and infirm, and my life’s mission is complete, I would rather have the days pass quickly.

Apparently, then, as you get older, time flies whether you’re having fun or not.  Interesting, isn’t it?

Today’s Curiosities

  • More doctors smoke Camels!  A collection of astounding cigarette ads they could never get away with now.  Click on the thumbnails.
  • This video is something that will be enjoyed particularly by my friends in television, or if you know what a B-roll is.  If not, it’s explained here.  But even if you don’t know what it is, watch this and you’ll figure it out:

Have a marvelous weekend!  –Steve


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