How Crabby Old Lady Got That Way
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9

The Speed of Time: Cache Time

EDITOR’S NOTE: One reader’s response to The Speed of Time is so intriguing, I want to share it with you. Eric Antonow is president and CEO of Katabat, a real estate technology firm. In two of his other lives he is the father of a nine-month-old and he is a blogger with so many interests it takes eight or nine Weblogs to express them. d o c u m e n t is a good place to start. Here is Eric’s ingenious theory on the apparent increase in the speed of time as we age. He calls it The Caching Problem.

For the sake of intellectual efficiency, our minds cache vast amounts of information for quick, later reference. Just as Web browsers store images of frequently and recently visited sites, the human brain stores parts of the world that we interact with everyday such as the shape of an eggplant, the golden retriever that belongs to our neighbor, our neighbors themselves.

As a result, much of what we think of as experience is actually the act of accessing the cached data rather than processing the real-life visual or auditory or other experience.

As there are fewer experiences, over time, involving new data and an increased number using cached data, the world seems to move faster because we are processing old data for the second, fiftieth, hundredth time (so it really is faster). And because there is a fundamentally different experience in seeing something for the first time and seeing it again, in one sense, we do not experience cached data, we merely process it.

To explain it another way, think of the computer again. If we access an image locally (the cache in our minds), it is pretty much guaranteed to be exactly what we saw before (yawn). If we have to go out to the network (ah, the world) to get the information, there is the chance the world may surprise us with something different.

Metal and silicon computers use the cached data only when it is exactly the same as the current reference. Humans, however, are much less strict. We are willing to replace even modestly similar experiences with a cached reference. This is a separate abstracting function in our mind: this golden retriever is close enough to the last one I saw that I don’t have to “see” it again. It could be a very different animal – a temperamental golden lab, for instance - but a person still sees that other referenced benevolent dog.

(A digression: as my nine-month-old son is learning what a book is, he uses what seems to be a parallel process in learning the abstraction that his Very Hungry Caterpillar and my Incomplete Education are both books.)

To summarize: time seems to accelerate as we get older because:

  1. We tend to increasing refer to cached data because that cache seems increasing to encompasses our experience.
  2. We tend to access cached data in cases where it is not an exact match with current experience (a false assumption).
  3. 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.

If you accept this theory, the answer to slowing down time would seem to be to find creative ways to “clear the cache.” My modest experience has been that travel can do this. That is, if you go to a very different place and experience it as it is, then you can return to the your world and experience things fresh again. (A month in rural India or Morocco or, for most of us, The Bronx should do the trick.)

If travel is not available, there are more commonplace rituals we can use to clear our personal caches. Meditation and other methods of mindfulness may be a route.

It could be that one of our worst difficulties occurs interacting with other people. It probably accelerates the caching (Point 1); increases the false assumption rate (Point 2); and definitely exacerbates our belief in grandiose assumptions that we know what all people are like (Point 3). I haven’t really thought too much about this last part, but I have a gut sense this is true.

Lastly, I keep thinking of this Thomas Hardy quote from Tess of the d'Urbervilles:

“Experience is as to intensity and not as to duration.”

I think that’s really the crux. Experience (in time) is not really related to time (per se) but to intensity of the experience. And the level of intensity depends on how intimately or powerfully or emotionally we are interacting with the world versus our cache.


Interesting. Both simplistic and complex way of postulating. I like it! It does cause me to smile when I reflect on how much we analogize our world to computers.

Very interesting! I can connect to the analogy of the human brain to the computer for I sometimes talk about my "memory" half-jokingly as being a bit slow in "searching" for some information I'm trying to recall.

I think another way to "clear the cache" is to learn and study, ie. exercise the brain to make room for new information.

Wow! How thought provoking is the theory. Thanks for sharing it with us, Ronni.

This whole post fits very nicely into my perception that when I'm on the road, especially when I am totally out of my element, as in India or Morocco, time slows WAY down. So not only does travel have the effect of clearing the cache and helping us to see our own environment with new eyes, it also offer up experience that we can ONLY experience, since there isn't any cache to draw upon. Of course, if we stay at the Holiday Inn, this doesn't work.

We don't really "clear the cache." Even if you can experience something new, the cache remains. The idea is to ignore the cache references and approach experience with the attitude that "this is new." You say to yourself, "I haven't seen it in this way before" or "I don't really know her." You "see things fresh." This quiets the internal dialogue and focuses perception on the thing self and so has the effect of slowing down our subjective sensation of the passage of time. Seconds can seem like minutes or hours. And it is the only really authentic way to experience life. But it takes an effort to experience things this the author points out, almost everyone is in the habit of substituting remembered experience for here-and-now experience. So much easier, but we lose all we have in life, our experience, in the process.

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