Have you ever asked yourself questions like this? How much time do I have… to get a tan, lose 10 pounds, find a partner, get pregnant, land a job, complete my novel, make a significant contribution to my community, be chosen for a leading role on stage, or achieve whatever I intend to achieve before I die? The questions will vary depending on your age, the stage of life you’re in, your assessment of your life so far, and whether you’re in school, working, retired, or just on holiday.
Time may feel like pressure or like luxury. Frequently, we think about it in terms of how much of it we do or don’t have, whether we’re about to arrive somewhere early or late, when a mind-numbing meeting will end, or how we can extend the moment when we first fall in love and shorten it when we’re sitting in the dentist’s chair.
In an effort to lower my stack of “New Yorkers” by the daring action of reading a few, I recently learned that there are scientists who study time, that is, how we perceive time. My hope was to find out why time seems to move so slowly in childhood and so quickly after we reach a certain age; I wasn’t disappointed.
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and professor at Baylor University, according to the article The Possibilian by Burkhard Bilger, “is a man obsessed by time.” Mr. Eagleman fell off a roof when he was a child, and went through what everyone who has a near-death experience talks about: the apparent deceleration of time. The event became a springboard into his life’s work, and he now studies what happens to people’s sense of time as they fall downward in death-defying carnival rides, along with other esoteric topics.
As far as our perception of time as we age, “The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. ‘This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,’ Engleman said — why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.”
My favorite quote from this article reminded me of the words of the brain researcher I wrote about in my last blog post. Compare John Medina, “Our brains give us only an approximate view of reality,” to this: “Eagleman…says the brain needs time to get its story straight. It gathers up all the evidence of our senses and only then reveals it to us. If all our senses are slightly delayed, we have no context by which to measure a given lag. Reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully censored before it reaches us.” Try to keep this in mind the next time you fall in love… or have to sit in the dentist’s chair.