Originally published in New Dawn magazine, Sept-Oct 2007.
I’m six years old, in the car with my parents and brother, travelling back from our annual two week holiday in Conwy, North Wales. It’s dark and the journey seems to take forever. I lie in the back seat, watching the orange street lights and the houses pass by, and wonder if we’re ever going to get home.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ I ask my father.
‘Don’t be silly,’ he says. ‘We only set off half an hour ago.’
My mum plays the ‘Yes/No’ game and ‘Twenty questions’ with us to make the time pass faster. We listen to the radio for a while. Then I fall asleep. When I wake up it seems like I’ve been in the car for an eternity and I can’t believe we’re still not home.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ I ask again.
‘Not far now,’ says my father.
We play some more games and finally I recognise the streets of our suburb of Manchester. I feel bored and miserable and tell myself that I’m never going to spend as long in a car ever again.
The journey from Conwy to Manchester took two hours when I was a child and still takes roughly two hours now (although slightly less due to improvements in roads). I made the journey again a few years ago and couldn’t believe how short it seemed now, from my adult perspective. Those two hours – which seemed like an eternity when I was 6 – were nothing. My girlfriend was driving, and we chatted, listened to tapes, watched the Welsh countryside give way to the urban sprawl of north-west England, and we were back in Manchester almost before we knew it. It was a little frightening – what had happened to all the time that two hours contained when I was six years old?
A year or so ago I made another journey which gave me an indication of how much more quickly time is passing to me now. This was a 15 hour plane journey, from Singapore to Manchester, which also seemed to last forever. I’m not a very good flyer and it wasn’t a very good flight: we flew into two typhoons over India and it was rocky almost all the way. I hoped I’d be able to ‘kill’ some of the time by sleeping but it was impossible. Every time I drifted off my anxiety woke me up again. Failing that, I hoped I’d at least be able to make the time pass quickly by distracting myself with the in-flight entertainment or with books and magazines, but my mind stubbornly refused to move from the moment to moment reality of the situation. I was aware of every minute passing, and as a result time seemed to drag horribly. Every time I checked the clock – which was every few minutes or so – less time had gone by than I expected.
My subjective sense of how long that journey took is, I realised recently, very similar to my sense of how long my childhood journey to Conwy took. To me they seemed to involve roughly the same amount of boredom and impatience and to last for roughly the same amount of time. This suggests that what was two hours to me as a child is equivalent to 15 hours to me as an adult – which means, rather frighteningly, that time is now passing around seven times faster than when I was a child.
This story appears to fit with most people’s experience. Most of us feel that time moved very slowly when we were children and is gradually speeding up as we grow older. We’ve all remarked on it: how Christmas seems to come round quicker every year; how you’re just getting used to writing the date of the new year on your cheques and you realise that it’s almost over; how your children are about to finish school when it doesn’t seem long since you were changing their nappies.
Questionnaires by psychologists have shown that almost everyone – including college students – feels that time is passing faster now compared to when they were half or a quarter as old as now. And perhaps most strikingly, a number of experiments have shown that, when older people are asked to guess how long intervals of time are, or to ‘reproduce’ the length of periods of time, they guess a shorter amount than younger people.
We usually become conscious of this speeding up around our late twenties, when most of us have ‘settled down’. We have steady jobs and marriages and homes and our lives become ordered into routines – the daily routine of working, coming home, having dinner and watching TV; the weekly routine of (for example) going to the gym on Monday night, going to the cinema on Wednesday night, going for a drink with friends on Friday night etc.; and the yearly routine of birthdays, bank holidays and two weeks’ holiday in the summer. After a few years we start to realise that the time it takes us to run through these routines seems to be decreasing, as if we’re on a turntablewhich is picking up speed with every rotation. As the French philosopher Paul Janet noted more than a hundred years ago:
Whoever counts many lustra in his memory need only question himself to find that the last of these, the past five years, have sped much more quickly than the preceding periods of equal amount. Let any one remember his last eight or ten school years: it is the space of a century. Compare with them the last eight or ten years of life: it is the space of an hour.
This speeding up is probably responsible for the phenomenon which psychologists call ‘forward telescoping’: our tendency to think that past events have happened more recently than they actually have. Marriages, deaths, the birth of children – when we look back at these and other significant events, we’re often surprised that they happened so long ago, shocked to find that it’s already four years since a friend died when we thought it was only a couple of years, or that a niece or nephew is already ten years old when it only seems like three or four years since they were born. As one 83 year old man told me, ‘I can never guess how long ago things happened. People ask me things like ‘When did so and so get married?’ or ‘When did so and so die?’ and I’m always way out. If I say it was two years it turns out to be 5 years. If I say six months, it’s two years.’ The same holds true for national and international events, like the deaths of famous people, natural disasters and wars: studies have shown that people usually date these too recently as well. And perhaps this is because time is speeding up for as we get older. Time is moving more quickly than we think. It doesn’t seem like four years since a friend died or a baby was born, or since a famous person died, because during those four years time has been speeding up without you realising, making every month and year shorter than the one before.
The Proportional and Biological Theories
So why do we experience this speeding up of time? One popular answer is the ‘proportional’ theory, which suggests that the important factor is that, as you get older, each time period constitutes a smaller fraction of your life as a whole. This theory seems to have been first put forward in 1877 by Paul Janet, who suggested the law that, as William James describes it, ‘the apparent length of an interval at a given epoch of a man’s life is proportional to the total length of the life itself. A child of 10 feels a year as 1/10 of his whole life – a man of 50 as 1/50, the whole life meanwhile apparently preserving a constant length.’ At the age of one month, a week is a quarter of your whole life, so it’s inevitable that it seems to last forever. At the age of 14, one year constitutes around 7% of your life, so that seems to be a large amount of time too. But at the age of 30 a week is only a tiny percentage of your life, and at 50 a year is only 2% of your life, and so your subjective sense is that these are insignificant periods of time which pass very quickly.
There is some sense to this theory – it does offer an explanation for why the speed of time seems to increase so gradually and evenly, with almost mathematical consistency. One problem with it, however, is that it tries to explain present time purely in terms of past time. The assumption behind it is that we continually experience our lives as a whole, and perceive each day, week, month or year becoming more insignificant in relation to the whole. But we don’t live our lives like this. We live in terms of much smaller periods of time, from hour to hour and day to day, dealing with each time period on its own merits, independently of all that has gone before.
There are also biological theories. One of these is that the speeding up of time is linked to how our metabolism gradually slows down as we grow older. Because children’s hearts beat faster than ours, because they breathe more quickly and their blood flows more quickly etc., their body clocks ‘cover’ more time within the space of 24 hours than ours do as adults. Children live through more time simply because they’re moving through time faster. Think of a clock which is set to run 25% faster than normal time – after 12 hours of normal time it has covered 15 hours, after 24 hours of normal time it has covered 30, which means that, from that clock’s point of view, a day has contained more time than usual. On the other hand old people are like clocks which run slower than normal, so that they lag behind, and cover less than 24 hours’ time against a normal clock.
Also from a biological perspective, there is the ‘body temperature’ theory. In the 1930s the psychologist Hudson Hoagland conducted a series of experiments which showed that body temperature causes different perceptions of time. Once, when his wife was ill with the flu and he was looking after her, he noticed that she complained that he’d been away for a long time even if he was only away for a few moments. With admirable scientific detachment, Hoagland tested her perception of time at different temperatures, and found that the higher her temperature, the more time seemed to slow down for her, and the longer she experienced each time period. Hoagland followed this up with several semi-sadistic experiments with students, which involved them enduring temperatures of up to 65C, and wearing heated helmets. These showed that raising a person’s body temperature can slow down their sense of time passing by up to 20%. And the important point here may be that children have a higher body temperature than adults, which may mean that time is ‘expanded’ to them. And in a similar way, our body temperature becomes gradually lower as we grow older, which could explain a gradual ‘constriction’ of time.
The Perceptual Theory
However, in my view, the speeding up of time we experience is mainly related to our perception of the world around us and of our experiences, and how this perception changes as we grow older.
The speed of time seems to be largely determined by how much information our minds absorb and process – the more information there is, the slower time goes. This connection was verified by the psychologist Robert Ornstein in the 1960s. In a series of experiments, Ornstein played tapes to volunteers with various kinds of sound information on them, such as simple clicking sounds and household noises. At the end he asked them to estimate how long they had listened to the tape for, and found that when there was more information on the tape (e.g. when there were double the number of clicking noises), the volunteers estimated the time period to be longer. He found that this applied to the complexity of the information too. When they were asked to examine different drawings and paintings, the participants with the most complex images estimated the time period to be longest.
I have tested this myself with a simple experiment with music. During a course, I asked the participants to listen to two pieces of music. One was a mad, frenetic piano concerto by Rachmaninov, with notes cascading at a rate of about 10 per second. The other was a piece of ambient music by Brian Eno, which floated gently and sedately across the room. We listened to the pieces for different periods of time and I asked the participants to estimate how much time had passed. If time perception is related to information, they should have experienced more time for the Rachmaninov piece. It contains a lot more information than the Brian Eno piece – many times more notes, tones and different instruments. All of this extra information should have stretched time.
And this is what the results showed. We listened to the Rachmaninov piece for 2 mins 20 secs, and the average estimate was 3 mins 25 secs. We listened to the Brian Eno piece for 2 minutes, while the average estimate was 2 mins 32 secs – still an over-estimate, but a lower one.
And if more information slows down time, perhaps part of the reason why time goes so slowly for children is because of the massive amount of ‘perceptual information’ that they take in from the world around them. Young children appear to live in a completely different world to adults – a much more intense, more real and more fascinating and beautiful one. As the psychologist Ernest Becker writes, in childhood we experience a ‘vision of the primary miraculousness of creation,’ and our perceptions of the world are ‘suffused…in emotion and wonder.’ This is one of the reasons why we often recall childhood as a time of bliss – because the world was a much more exciting and beautiful place to us then, and all our experiences were so intense. Children’s heightened perception means that they’re constantly taking in all kinds of details which pass us adults by – tiny cracks in windows, tiny insects crawling across the floor, patterns of sunlight on the carpet etc. And even the larger scale things which we can see as well seem to be more real to them, to be brighter, with more presence and is-ness. All of this information stretches out time for children.
However, as we get older, we lose this intensity of perception, and the world becomes a dreary and familiar place – so dreary and familiar that we stop paying attention to it. After all, why should you pay attention to the buildings or streets you pass on the way to work? You’ve seen these things thousands of times before, and they’re not beautiful or fascinating, they’re just…ordinary. As Becker describes it, we ‘repress’ this intensity of vision. ‘By the time we leave childhood,’ he writes, ‘we have closed it off, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw experience’. Or as Wordsworth puts it in his famous poem ‘Intimations of Immortality’, the childhood vision which enabled to all things ‘apparelled in celestial light’, begins to ‘fade into the light of common day.’ And this is why time speeds up for us. As we become adults, we begin to ‘switch off’ to the wonder and is-ness of the world, gradually stop paying conscious attention to our surroundings and experience. As a result we take in less information, which means that time passes more quickly. Time is less ‘stretched’ with information.
Old and New Experience
And once we become adults, there is a process of progressive ‘familiarisation’ which continues throughout our lives. The longer we’re alive, the more familiar the world becomes, so that the amount of perceptual information we absorb decreases with every year, and time seems to pass faster every year.
There are two basic reasons why this happens. On the one hand, as we grow older there is progressively less newness in our lives. The life of a 20 year old woman is still full of new experiences. She’s still discovering new kinds of music, food, literature and other new hobbies and interests. She might be experiencing her first serious romantic relationship, learning to drive, flying and going abroad for the first time, discovering new towns or the countryside close to where she lives and so on. When she has these new experiences she is free of the de-sensitising mechanism; she perceives the ‘raw experience’ of the world and processes a large amount of perceptual information.
The same person at the age of 30 might still be having a few new experiences. She might be having a baby, going abroad to another country she’s never been to before, learning a new language, or starting a new job. But by the time she reaches 40 the world contains much less unfamiliarity. Her life probably consists mainly of the repetition of experiences which she’s had hundreds or thousands of times before. She works at the job she’s had for the last 20 years, goes home to the same house she’s had for the last ten, devotes her free time to the same hobbies and interests she discovered when she was 20, goes away at weekends to the same countryside, to the same foreign country every year, and so on. Because of this the de-sensitising mechanism has a greater hold over her. She’s hardly ever free of it, which means that she absorbs much less perceptual information.
But if there was the only reason why our perceptions become less fresh – and why time speeds up – as we get older, there wouldn’t be much difference between the time perceptions of a 40 and a 60 year old person. Most of us use up almost all of our ‘stock’ of new experience by the time we reach middle-age, and so there would be no real reason why time should appear to move faster for a person at these different ages. However, the second reason why our perceptions become less fresh is probably that as we get older all the experiences we’ve already had become more familiar to us. Not only do we have fewer new experiences, but the experiences which are already familiar to us become progressively less real. In William James’ words, ‘each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine.’ As well as experiencing lots of new things, a woman at the age of 20 is still quite ‘fresh’ to the phenomenal world around her – but over the next 20 years, she’ll look at the same street scenes and the same sky and the same trees hundreds of thousands of times, so that more and more of their realness will fade away.
Incidentally, this link between time and information can explain other aspects of time too. One of the ‘laws’ of psychological time which I set out in my book Making Time is that ‘time seems to slow down when we’re exposed to new environments and experiences.’ This is because the unfamiliarity of new experiences allows to take in much more information. Another of the laws is that ‘time goes quickly in states of absorption.’ This is because in states of absorption our attention narrows to one small focus and we block out information from our surroundings. At the same time there is very little ‘cognitive information’ in our minds, since the concentration has quietened the normal ‘thought chatter’ of the mind. On the other hand, time goes slowly in states of boredom and discomfort because in these situations our attention isn’t occupied and a massive amount of thought-chatter flows through our minds, bringing a massive amount of cognitive information.
Slowing Down Time
On the positive side though, if we know why time speeds up as we get older we aren’t powerless against it. If we know that this is caused by familiarity, then we make an effort to expose to ourselves to as much newness in our lives as possible – not just new environments through travel (although this is very important), but new challenges, new situations, new information, ideas, hobbies and skills. As the expansion of time which we often experience when we go to foreign countries shows, newness and unfamiliarity stretch time. If we regularly expose ourselves to unfamiliarity, we can experience more time in our lives, and so effectively live for ‘longer’.
If you spend all the years of your adult life doing the same job, living in the same house in the same area, doing the same things with the same people in your free time, then it’s inevitable that you experience a swift passage of time. But if you change jobs regularly, regularly travel to new places, keep investigating new ideas and giving yourself new challenges, time will pass more slowly to you. In this way, it’s possible for a person who dies before the age of 40 (like the French poet and explorer Arthur Rimbaud, who I wrote about recently in New Dawn) to live for ‘longer’ than a person who dies at the age of 80.
A second way in which we can slow down time is by making a conscious effort to be ‘mindful’ of our experience. There are some people who seem to be as affected by familiarity than others, and see the world with something of the fresh, first-time vision of children all through their lives. These are the kind of people – sometimes seen as eccentrics by those around them – who often begin sentences with phrases like ‘Isn’t is strange that ?’ or ‘Have you ever wondered ?’ They’re the kind of people who might stop in the street to gaze up at a beautiful scene of the sun breaking through clouds or a silver moon above the rooftops; or they might stare intently at the sea, at flowers or at animals, as if they’ve never them before. Poets and artists often have this kind of ‘child-like’ vision – in fact it’s this that usually provides the inspiration for their work. They often have a sense of strangeness and wonder about things which most of us take for granted, and feel a need to capture and frame their more intense perceptions. These people will be less affected by the first time law of psychological time than others; time may well speed up for them, but perhaps not to the same degree.
And in a sense, we can cultivate this attitude simply by making a conscious effort to be ‘mindful.’ Instead of focusing our attention on the ‘thought-chatter’ in our heads or on tasks or distractions like TV or computer games, we should try to live in the present, to give our attention to the experiences we’re having and to our surroundings. When you’re having a shower in the morning, for example – instead of letting your mind chatter away about the things you’ve got to do today or the things you did last night, try to bring your attention to the here and now, to really be aware of the sensation of the water splashing against and running down your body and the sense of warmth and cleanness you feel. Or on the way home from work on the bus or the train – instead of mulling over all the problems you’ve had to deal with at work or daydreaming about the attractive girl you met last night, focus your attention outside you; look at the sky, at the houses and buildings you pass, and be aware of yourself here, walking amongst them.
Mindfulness means stopping thinking and starting to be aware, to live in the here and now of your experience instead of the ‘there and then’ of your thoughts. It stretches time in exactly the same way that new experience does: because we give more attention to our experience, we take in more information from it.
In other words, to some extent we can control time. It doesn’t have to speed up as get older. Some of us try to extend our lives by keeping fit and eating healthy food, which is completely sensible. But it’s also possible for us to expand time from the inside, by changing the way we experience the moment to moment reality of our lives. We can live for longer not just in terms of years, but also in terms of perception.