14 10 2007

Why is it that everything seemed so much more vivid when we were children? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. More to the point, why is it that time seemed to move so much slower when we were young, and what causes it to accelerate as we get older? I know that it has become a bit of a cliche, but I think it is worth examining. The obvious example is Christmas (at least for those who celebrate that holiday). As a kid, the distance from December 1st to December 24th is enormous. Civilizations could rise and fall, species could evolve to extinction, all in a little over three weeks. As a 43-year-old adult I’ve come to realize that the entire holiday season actually only lasts about a week. Monday is Labor Day, Tuesday is Halloween, Thanksgiving always falls on a Thursday, Friday is Christmas, Saturday night we ring in the New Year, and we’re all back to work on Valentine’s Day the following Monday.

People say it’s because we are so busy, or because we have so many responsibilities when we get older. I’m not sure that I’m buying it. I can still get time to slow down. When I’m at work, sometime around midday Wednesday for example, time plods by at an agonizing crawl. I can make it go even faster, too. If I want to get through a particular period of time very rapidly, all I have to do is schedule some unpleasant event…say a doctor’s appointment…about a month ahead. Zing! Goodbye OctobA leaf fallser, hello doctor.

I’ve come up with a theory about it. Obviously the passage of time is a matter of perception. We perceive the world around us through the use of our senses–sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. I think that our perception of the passage of time is directly related to the way that we perceive our surroundings. Take for example a tree. At five years old you haven’t seen a lot of trees. Trees are relatively new to you, noteworthy. You might walk down the street where you live and notice every single tree, the way the branches seem at once randomly placed but vaguely symmetrical, the various shapes of leaves or textures of bark, or just how some trees are big/tall while others are little/short. This imaginary five-year-old’s perception of time would be more drawn out, I think, due to an illusion caused when the brain is taking in large amounts of new, or relatively new, information. If our brains have to slow down–even infinitesimally–to process “new” information, then we feel that time itself has slowed. An adult walking down the same street might not even notice the trees–maybe he’s looking for his five-year-old whose wandered off. An adult has seen trees, lots and lots of trees, so that unless one of them is purple his brain is not going to process anything regarding trees, hence, no illusory slowing of his perception of time.

Here is an interesting idea for an experiment. Have two people take a thirty minute walk. One person will walk in a familiar setting–his or her own neighborhood, for example–while the other person walks in an unfamiliar place. The walks should start and end at some predetermined location within each setting, and neither of the walkers should be given anything with which to tell time. They are simply to stroll about until they feel that 30 minutes has passed. I’m willing to bet that the person in the unfamiliar setting, with more “new” information to be processed, will walk longer and return to the predetermined location last every time.




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