Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Speed of Life

The Speed of Life: 
Why Time Seems to Speed Up and How to Slow it Down

By davidjones

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 streetlights 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 turntable which 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.1
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 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.”2 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.
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.
Link to full article newdawnmagazine