“Time is the father of truth, its mother is our mind.” ~ Giordano Bruno
I have often considered – and not without wonder – the generally held opinion in those well my senior that time passes more quickly the older one becomes. Childhood, from the perspective of the child, lasts forever, while those in their 50s, 60s and beyond regularly express their amazement at the increasingly rapid passage of time.
Why is that?
Some might claim it to be the result of the mathematics of life: each moment as you age becomes an increasingly smaller fraction of your total life. Others might say it results from the realization that every year you advance puts you closer to the end of your life and the decreasing distance between where you are and where you will end up gives the impression of speeding up.
I have to wonder if there is another piece to this puzzle.
Let us consider memory for a moment. What is memory? Put simply, memory is the record of moments passed. Memory varies in its accuracy and in its level of detail and the greater the detail the more vivid and rich the memory of the actual experience.
You no doubt have had an experience or two in your life where you found yourself in a dangerous situation, say a potential car or airplane crash. Did you notice that time seemed to “slow down,” that you noticed more detail or that you seemed to have more space – within the same time – to decide how to respond? This illusion is often represented in the cinema, a classic example being the character “Neo” in The Matrix when he was being shot at. His perception of time slowed to the point that he could see the bullets coming at him and avoid them be bending away at just the right moment.
The change in perception in moments such as these, where the mind “speeds up” and lays down more layers of memory of an event, are fascinating. Whether this is a result of a chemical change in the body, for consciousness is in part the result of a delicate chemical balance, or some other less tangible and therefore less explicable factor, the mind and body shift into overdrive, producing a memory (if the brain doesn’t compensate by closing off the memory entirely) that is much richer than would be the case in a less stressful situation.
As we age we tend to gain experience with the world around us. This familiarity tends to produce a complacency, or perhaps better put, a prejudice that lulls the conscious mind to “sleep” in relation to the details of living. If you drive the same route to and from work over and over again, those elements which do not change along the route – the fences, the homes, the buildings, the trees and just about any other detail in the scenery – no longer catch the attention of your conscious mind. You may even find yourself remembering only leaving the parking lot at the office and then driving up your driveway at home. You may be unable to recall any other details from the trip. Scary, but true, right!?!
So now for the piece of the puzzle I mentioned earlier.
When you are a child, everything is new to you. You notice details that just about everyone else misses. A simple walk through the woods is a festival for the senses, where layer upon layer of detail impress themselves upon your malleable consciousness, imprinting their record upon the soft and relatively unstructured substance of your memory. A ten minute walk could seem like a day, a week or a year! You “lose yourself” in the secret of time, which as Thomas Mann once wrote is “lacking in substance and yet almighty.”
As you grow older, less and less tends to capture your attention in the same way. You begin to pay more attention to what you are looking for, confirming your now well-developed worldview, opinions and beliefs, rather than seeing the fulness of what is actually going on round about. In short, you notice less and as a result, remember fewer of the layers of detail that, years earlier, might have cast a spell on you.
They say that “time flies when you’re having fun.” But isn’t that an observation made after the fact? During the event, however, there is a timeless quality to the moment. Time opens up and swallows you for the moment.
If there is something to this consideration on memory, then it would follow that taking an approach in living that emphasizes curiosity, open-mindedness and enthusiasm would lead to richer memories, thereby producing the effect of time slowing down. I have not proved this theory, but I am looking forward to putting it to the test.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!
13 thoughts on “Slowing Down Time”
Time is an amazing thing. I think that it is interesting that people generally feel that time speeds up as they grow older, as I have noticed that as well.
I wonder if it is just the paradigm of our society that we lose the experience of detail as we age. It would seem that if we could keep the same perspective that we had as a child, with the maturity that comes with age, we would be much more capable than we would otherwise.
How so? I’d love to hear more.
As you grow older, you gain the perspective of having seen so many details in your life, but you also should be much more concerned with how your actions affect others. In other words, maturity should give you the ability to use your experience without worrying about yourself so much. If you combined this with the “everything’s new” detailed observation of a child, you would be able to have a much greater ability to use those observations.
An interesting analysis of this peculiar phenomenon of elastic time! I do remember as a child that a year seemed like a very long time, and then suddenly, as it seems, years and even decades are whirling by. Whatever may be involved, it surely behooves us, as you emphasize, not to allow prejudiced vision to block the magnificent dimensions of life from experience. Advancing years should allow for more dimensions to be known, not less, and the elasticity of time can be an ally if we learn to abide in the eternity of the present!
Excellent essay. I will definitely pay more attention because of it.
So well expressed Greg! Always a pleasure to read your blog.
One thought might be that there appears to be less and less time because we would like more things to come into our experience of comfort as we grow in the world. The seemingly rushing about in the world, has elements of concern centering around our desires of wanting certain things to be as we would like them to be. Hahaha! And most of us have many ideas about how we can be comforted!
What came to me in reading your words on time, is the word patience. Patience in the way of not waiting or wanting something to appear in a certain way that we might conceptualize, but rather in the way of opening our sensory experience to what is presented in this moment in time, giving us the opportunity to explore what we are feeling in fact. In a sense, having an experience as a child, in real time!
I think we can be more child-like without abdicating our responsibilities as mature adults and I imagine that we could much more creative in general were we to release or at least the blunders we tend to place on ourselves over time. Thanks for your comment Roberto!
When we bring a fresh curiosity into our job and business it gives us an additional 8 to 10 hours a day that often are “rented” out to someone else or sacrificed as a means to an end. Living an uncommon life won’t add time but it will add a depth and richness that makes life a gourmet event rather than a starvation existence!
Well said Doug!
Having young children myself I only need to spend a few minutes with them walking thru the woods to be reminded of what Gregg is refers to. And as Ricardo mentioned, taking the time to reflect and not allow the “locomotion” to have control over us I feel is key.
Life does pass by faster as we age, if we allow it.
What a great theory and I’d hazard a guess that it’s more than just that. Either way, we’re missing a lot in life if we just cruise along like riding a train, never really stopping to notice and enjoy the details of day.
Yesterday after reading that stirring poem I had this similar question and I agree with your answer. I remembered introducing my children and grandchildren to things new to them or just something as common place as walking in the woods on a beautiful fall day and realizing it was their curiosity along with their open sense of wonder that brought a delightful keeness to their observations. This unprejudiced approach to each moment is still available if we are willing to live in the present not squaring everything to the past or squaring it to what we had planned for the future. Wonderful topic today. Enjoying the richness of our lives is a choice. Thank you for the reminder.
Part of what may be happening also as an adult is that we have more preoccupations, more real troubles than what a child would normally experience, if not simply by just having more experiences. When the mind is unfettered by clamor, there are less distractions and perhaps the use of our minds is more put to its immediate environment and the level of appreciation grows.
Now this is not to say that just because there are troubles, we are forced to be distracted. There is the interpretation of the event, how we deal with it, that has to occur for the experience of it to all happen. We can make a mountain out of a molehill easy enough if we do not put our emotional affairs in order for instance.
So for me, learning to deal with life’s pressures in a healthy way as an adult is paramount to having a rich and rewarding experience of life where moments can be savored. I don’t think there is any way around the fact that we have to be organized in our lives if we wish for this to be a continuous reality, this matter of curiosity and wonder, for indeed so many things are wonderful. One thing that just came to me in an effort to organize the adult mind is the matter of stillness, of taking the time to be quiet with your thoughts and allow the busy-ness to settle down. Meditation, prayer, things like that at least for me, help me to keep that anchor into what truly matters to me, no matter how much locomotion may be going round about.