Most old people agree that the older we get, the faster time goes by. But in under an hour early Tuesday morning, I had a good lesson in just how slowly time can pass in certain circumstances.
By 8AM, I was stretched out in the dentist's chair while enduring first, two massively painful needle sticks in my lower jaw followed by the extraction of a bad molar and insertion of an titanium implant.
Those procedures took about 35 minutes in real time which surprised me. It had felt like at least an hour and a half. I was exhausted.
In the book, Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time that I mentioned on Monday, the author Marc Wittman (translated by Erik Butler) reports on the results of recent research into the subjective experiences of time.
”In situations that trigger intense fear (note: I am always convinced the dental pain killer won't work), time expands enormously...Unusually stressful situations lead to subjective time dilation in all human beings.”
Directly finishing the dental work, I walked across the street to the pharmacy I use and waited 20 minutes for an antibiotic prescription to be filled. Again, the wait seemed much longer than it was. Wittman again:
”While waiting at the doctor's - when one is paying attention to time...half an hour may pass in an intolerably slow fashion.”
No kidding. As my Tuesday morning proved. Twice.
On several past occasions I have written about how time speeds up for elders, including the most popular explanation for the phenomenon: that when you are ten years old, for example, a year is one tenth of your entire life. When you are 80, it is only one-eightieth of your life making a year seem, supposedly, of shorter duration.
That explanation has never been good enough for me. It just seems “off” and Wittman agrees – although for more substantial reasons than mine.
He is a research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health, Freiburg, Germany who has been studying the psychology of time for many years.
He believes that the perceived increase in the speed of time in old age is much more complicated than the popular explanation. One way that is true is that time perception varies depending on whether a person is sensing it as a memory of the past or a current sensation (as my dental appointment) or anticipation of a future event.
It is an important finding in several studies, says Wittman, that our experience of the speed of time depends a great deal on memory of events.
”Numerous studies from the field of cognitive psychology have shown that the subjective duration of a span of time depends on the number of events stores in memory and the number of changes experienced in this period...
“A large quantity of changes perceived over a stretch of time causes duration to expand subjectively, compared to the same span spent under conditions that are monotonous and poor in experience.”
In addition, the discrete number of unique events, which change over the years, also affects people's sense of the passage of time .
”...childhood, youth and early adulthood are phases of life marked by the accumulation of constantly new experiences: the birth of a younger sibling, the first day of school, the first vacation spent without parents, the first kiss, and so on...
“Three years of adult life often mean three years of routine: getting up, going to work, watching television, sleeping, getting up again and so on...The result is a lower quantity of memory contents...
“What stands out are the experiences that occur for the first time; as such, events from the early phases of live prove especially enduring.
In old age, Wittman tell us, due to
”...increasing routine and the decreasing novelty-value of experience that this entails, time seems to accelerate subjectively as fewer and fewer memories are stored over the course of a life.”
There is substantially more to know about the many ways we experience time than I am giving you in this short blog post, including the role our emotions play in creating and recalling memories.
Even without that information, it is easy to understand Wittman's smart advice for those of us who might like life to slow down even a bit.
”In order to feel that one's life is flowing more slowly – and fully – one might seek out new situations over and over to have novel experiences that, because of their emotional value, are retained by memory over the long term,” he writes.
“Greater variety makes a given period of life expand in retrospect. Life passes more slowly. If one challenges oneself consistently, it pays off, over the years, as the feeling of having lived fully – and most importantly, of having lived for a long time.”
Or, I suppose, you could just spend more time in a dentist's chair.