Will I Live Long Enough to Use All This?

How Time Flies – Or Not Sometimes

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.


Take me back oh time in thy flight,
Make me a child again, just for tonight.

Words I read as an eight year old child from Laura Ingalls Wilder. This week. I am 74.

Wasn't it possible, or is it no longer used, to have nitrous oxide (laughing gas)?
For many years that was the only way I managed to endure all the cavity drilling done.
Now I have a dentist who has gentle hands and is very soft spoken and does a low key running commentary as he works. It makes a gigantic difference in pain perception.

When sitting the waiting room one time (it did seem like forever) my internist came in.
I figured that was an added endorsement.

I’m thinking that when time seems to pass slowly it is perhaps because it seems like too much of an investment in what little time I may have remaining. If I can…I leave.

I also find that sometimes the anticipation and planning of something is much better than the event itself.

Life keeps revealing these things to us on an ongoing basis.

This is always an interesting topic, Ronni. I think I've mentioned his name in comments here before, but David Eagleman is an interesting neuroscientist who has written some books and hosted some interesting series in the arena of cognitive science. He's mentioned, along with others, in a fascinating article titled, "Time on the Brain: How You Are Always Living In the Past, and Other Quirks of Perception," written by George Musser for Scientific American in 2011. Much of the information Musser reports on was gathered at a conference he had recently attended on the nature of time. Anyone who is curious about the subject can google the title and Musser's name and easily access it. At the end of the article are some interesting comments and some additional references to other studies of time.

I'm having coffee while waiting for the library to open, and it seems like I've been sitting here for hours.

"Time speeds only when you would it wait." I think Shakespeare said that, but I don't have the time to look it up right now. ;^)

I've found that, due to the hustle and bustle of the offices I've worked in and the activity and noise of three young children, I have learned to focus deeply on my work and shut out the surrounding distractions quite well. Finally, when I do raise my head from my work, I find that hours have flown by with no awareness on my part! Often, I have missed lunch and any 'breaks' others have routinely taken.

Even now at 79 I am still working as a bookkeeper from my home office and the same holds true. Often, the only thing that brings me back to the world around me is the ache in my behind from sitting in one place for so long or a really urgent need to get to the bathroom! LOL

Although I used to believe in the theory that subjective time speeds up in some proportion to one's age, I've come to believe that we have (much as digital computers have) internal time clocks. Just as everything else about me has slowed with age, so has my time clock, making the rest of the world seem to be zooming by.

What were you thinking??? I've had an extraction and implant, and I wouldn't have turned down the sedation for the winning lottery ticket. With the drugs, it was practically a recreational event. But--I'm glad you got through it, and hope recovery will be unremarkable and crowned (so to speak) with a tooth you can really use!

I have independently come to the same conclusion that Wittman has. It is the fact that I repeat so many activities each day that makes them seem to sort of just run together. "Did I do that already, or am I thinking of yesterday?" Plus, of course, short-term memory hiccups, which also have a tendency to make things look like a vaguely rolling river.

To answer Estelle's question about Nitrous Oxide: Yes, it is still used, but not by any dentist I have been to. I recently had it for a procedure on my back and it didn't really stop all of the pain. Perhaps that's why dentists no longer use it because to give you enough to stop the pain might be dangerous. I am just guessing about that.

I didn't laugh after the procedure, but I did make jokes so maybe there is something to the nickname for Nitrous Oxide.

Ronni, you are really courageous and having had a molar pulled recently "I felt your pain." Or perhaps I was feeling the memory of my experience, but I do empathize with you on the time element.

My dentist doesn't use nitrous oxide but I've had it frequently with past dentists. It does not block pain; it relaxes the patient. Novocaine (or whatever similar thing is used today) blocks pain.

I do not understand what you mean asking why I turned down sedation. Are you talking about nitrous oxide? As I said my dentist doesn't use it (most do not these days). I did mention two needle sticks which I assumed would be understood to contain a pain blocker. Sorry, I will be more clear next time.

My dentist still uses nitrous, thank goodness! I'm a bona fide dental-phobic and that's the only way I can go near a dentist (I didn't for several 5-10 year periods in the past so I'm very lucky to still have almost all my teeth). I need nitrous plus one of the "caines" for any serious work.


I think Kate may have been referring to sedation dentistry (at least that's what it's called in my neck of the woods). I'm familiar with it because, like Elizabeth, I'm severely dental phobic. So when I desperately needed a root canal, I searched out a sedation dentist.

I was given a pill to take an hour before the procedure. I think it was Halcion, a benzodiazepine. And as Kate reported, the whole experience, which I only dimly remember, then became a total lark.

I was conscious, but barely and only remember all of us... the dentist, the various techs and me, laughing our heads off the whole time. When I went back to the office the next week for a check-up, everyone greeted me like a long lost friend. Clearly we had fun. I never thought I'd say that about a dentist's office.

I think sedation dentists use varying levels of sedation, depending on the procedure (and probably on the paranoia level of their patient), starting with nitrous oxide and working up to IV sedation, supposing oral sedation isn't effective or advised. I'm not an expert on that part. I only know that as a patient, I highly recommend it : )

I don't know about laughing on nitrous, but I wouldn't have a dental procedure---except cleaning---without it. It's not about the pain. It's about the white knuckle anxiety. Nitrous makes everything lovely and it goes away almost instantly with the administration of oxygen, so you can drive home safely. I'm glad my dentist makes it available, for a reasonable fee, because it's just about the best drug in the pharmacopeia. Kate Gilpin, thank you for "short term memory hiccups." It's a charming term for all the little brain glitches that plague us in every day elder life.

I'm staying this week with an 86 year old friend. We confided to each other that as children we'd been subjected to dental work without anesthetic and with very loud vibrating drills. I don't think they do that to kids anymore. I wonder if younger people will grow up less dentistry-phobic? Would be good for their teeth. I know many (now older) who skipped the dentist in midlife after my kind of upbringing.

Me too, janinsanfran. No anesthetic for drilling when I was a kid. And wait until you read this part: if you were a very good little girl and didn't scream too much, you got a little envelope of jujubes when you left. JUJUBES, for god's sake. Those candies that stick to your teeth for a full week.

I guess he was just ensuring future business.

I can't say the I agree with this article because I live according to the clock. Everything I do is timed. It makes no difference to me now that I am old than when I was young. I have a fetish for time and I just can't let it go.

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