Wednesday, 04 June 2014
Time Flies When You're Growing Old
It may be the most common lament among old people and if not, it's certainly up there in the top five: that time keeps speeding up with each passing year.
The writer of a book about time perception I've been trying to read nails the sensation:
”You think you saw someone a few months ago only to realize that it was in fact last year. You expect your friend's child [at our age, insert grandchild] to be a toddler only to discovery they've been at school for years now.”
The phenomenon is common enough to call it universal and it is one of the great mysteries of life. There many theories about the cause and no answers, just guesses - plausible and otherwise.
Among the oldest theories has been called Proportional Time. You know this one: When you're five, the notion goes, a year is a much more significant slice of your life, one-fifth of it. When you're 70, it's one-seventy-fifth so no wonder it seems to speed by.
This explanation has been around since at least the late 19th century with no added enlightenment since then, and it loses its apparent cogency when, according to the book's writer, we consider one day of time (instead of year) in relation to the number of years we have lived:
”[A day] should be fleeting and inconsequential, yet if you have nothing to do or an enforced wait at an airport for example, a day at 40 can still feel long and boring...”
I'm not so sure about that assumption since with a day of boredom one is living in the moment whereas with years, past, present and future tense are all involved so the comparison becomes apples and oranges.
You will have noticed by now that I've not mentioned the name of the book or its writer. That's because it is extravagantly overwritten – more than 300 pages of re-digested information (nothing you can't find online for free) that could easily be condensed into a longish magazine story.
In fact, a lot of what the book reports about human perception of time, its relationship to memory and possibilities for changing the speed at which it seems to pass is contained in three previous TGB posts.
In one of those, I explained some of the theories I had discovered in my research of this age old, old age problem. They are:
Complex Time: As we get older, life gets busier and with more things to do, there is less downtime so life speeds by. This is a weak argument as there are plenty of not-so-busy people who perceive time as moving faster than in youth.
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 how this affects the speed of time escapes me.
Routine Time: 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 one almost works because it blends fairly well with my favorite theory on the phenomenon which is
Tense Time: Time is perceived at different rates of speed depending on whether your mindset is primarily in the past, present or future tense.
Soon after I published that information (in 2004), a man named Eric Antonow, who is currently vice president of product marketing at Facebook, sent in his idea, a compelling theory he called Cache Time which I posted in its entirety.
Here's the short version:
- We tend to increasingly refer to cached data because that cache seems increasingly to encompasses our experience.
- We tend to access cached data in cases where it is not an exact match with current experience (a false assumption).
- The process snowballs as we gain a sort of self-righteous confidence that the world is what it is (the grumpy old man problem), and our ennui makes us lazy. Our mind-set biases us towards dipping into the cache versus dipping into the world.
You can read Antenow's entire thesis here. Interestingly, some recent research uses a similar explanation for why old people can't easily retrieve information they need – a word on the tip of their, for example - due to too much accumulated data to sift through in the cache.
Some of us are fascinated with time and its many varieties of elasticity and some of us are not. For those who are, here is the original TGB story about this, The Speed of Time from 2004.
Here again is Eric Antonow's followup, The Speed of Time: Cache Time.
And here is another story I did about the phenomenon in 2008, Some Theories on Elder Time which is somewhat repetitious of my 2004 story.
Since time is speeding by so quickly anyway, anything that wastes it ticks me off, big time, and that's how I feel about this padded book, Time Warped by Claudia Hammond. It has its moments but not nearly enough of them to warrant 300-plus pages.
But there you have it if you are interested. What interests me are your thoughts and experiences with the speed of time.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Alan Ginocchio: My Aunt Just Had a Vasectomy But She's Doing Fine Now