Tuesday, 13 July 2004
The Speed of Time
It is a well-known phenomenon that as we get older time appears to move faster. What took ages to get here in childhood is done and gone now before we realize it’s on its way. Time flies too “when you’re having fun” and when you are deeply engrossed. No one believes time really accelerates, but no one knows why it seems to do so either.
On a trip around the Web recently to see what the latest thinking on this phenomenon might be, explanations, both reasonable and crackpot, surfaced which I’ve labeled as follows:
1. Proportional Time: The most common reason advanced is that time is perceived as a proportion of time lived. That is, to a five-year-old, a year is 20 percent of his entire existence. To a 60 year-year-old, one year is it only 1.67 percent of his life.
2. Complex Time: Another well-worn theory is that as we get older, life gets busier and with more things to do, there is less downtime so life speeds by. This is a weaker argument as there are plenty of not-so-busy people who perceive time as moving faster than in youth.
3. Stupid Time: It’s forgetfulness according to this theory. Memory weakens as the years pass and because we can’t remember what we did yesterday, let alone last week or last month, time flies. Perhaps my mind has flown, but the logic of this one escapes me.
4. Routine Time: This argument postulates that as we age, our time is taken up with increasing numbers of practiced pleasures and predictable tasks that provide little intellectual stimulation. If, instead, we spent our time in new pursuits, this argument suggests, time would slow down. This almost works because it blends nicely with my new theory on this phenomenon, Tense Time:
Time is perceived at different rates of speed depending on whether your mindset is primarily in the past, present or future tense.
Children generally are future tense types. They can’t wait to be big enough to ride a bicycle or stay up later or go to the movies alone. Their anticipation of holidays, birthdays and summer vacations in addition to the constantly moving target of age-related privileges guarantees that each wait will feel like eternity.
Young adults live mainly in the future tense too, looking forward anxiously to that promotion, finding the perfect wife or husband, affording a fancier car or bigger house. Even raising kids is on future time – vying for the best schools and saving for the right college. Time moves more slowly during the first half of life because we are anticipating the next thing we want rather than enjoying what is here and now.
To the contrary, older folks tend to live in the past tense, recalling triumphs and tragedies from their younger years, sometimes complaining about new-fangled ways of doing things and lamenting the loss of the “good old days.” I don't like admitting it, but even I, who prides herself on being oh so au courant on just about anything but popular music, have been known, for example, to complain about the alarming deterioration of education in the years since I was in school, and to wonder aloud more than once why the fad of boys wearing pants so low their butt cracks show has been around for an entire decade without waning.
Living in the past tense may speed up time perception because the anticipation of the new is missing. And so, I am suggesting that an ideal solution for everyone – the young who wish to increase the speed at which time passes and the old who want to slow it down - might be to adjust the tense in which we live to the present.
Or, this could be just another crackpot idea I'm having.
NOTE: This theory is a close match to what some people call “mindfulness.” It has its origins in Buddhism, though no one is required to be an adherent to benefit, and it is worth looking into for its instruction into the rewards of living in the moment.