“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!