The Speed of Life

Yossarian’s pal Dunbar in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 had a theory that you would live longer if you bored yourself to death.  So he spent most of his time doing nothing, just lying on his bunk and staring up at the ceiling.  He was right about one thing.  Time does seem to slow down when you are bored; in that sense your life might appear to last longer.  But Dunbar was still a young man.  He had not yet come to grips with the fact that time speeds up as you grow older.

Now that I am a grandfather myself, I often have the eerie sense that my life is rushing for the exit.  Memories of long ago seem like only yesterday, even as years slip by unnoticed.  At times I feel like the astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In the unsettling final minutes of that film, Bowman is propelled through time and space at warp speed until he finds himself standing rather incongruously in his space suit in a windowless Louis XVI bedchamber.  He then fast-forwards through the remainder of his life, glimpsing a white-haired version of himself seated at a table, who looks up to see a still-older self lying on his death bed.  What has become of his life?       

Theories abound as to why time seems to accelerate as we near the finish line.  There is the so-called proportional theory that notes each successive period of one’s life makes up a smaller and smaller portion of the whole, creating the impression that any given interval of time is moving faster.  There are various biological explanations, including the fact that metabolism and body temperature both decline with age, affecting the perception of time.  Another popular explanation is that children are more absorbed in their experience when the world is still new, whereas adults pay less attention to the humdrum of daily life as it passes by in a blur.  None of these theories really addresses Dunbar’s efforts to slow time by cultivating boredom, which is probably no more than a short-term phenomenon in any event.

When we talk about time speeding up or slowing down, we never think to ask, “In relation to what?”  The assumption is that there is some uniform clock-time against which our perceptions can be measured.  Quite apart from Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which dispensed with that notion a century ago, we would be hard-pressed to cite anything more than our own subjective impressions of time passing, even if we were staring at a clock the entire time.  Time is unique among measurements in that it is impossible to measure a given period from end to end before the starting point has disappeared into the past, leaving us with nothing more tangible than memory.  We tend to use spatial metaphors in thinking about time, creating the impression that the past exists at some distance from the present, when the reality is that the past is nothing more than memories stored in the brain.  If long ago seems like only yesterday, and years slip by unnoticed, we are really only talking about the movement of impulses through neural circuits.  Perhaps our truest perceptions come when we are so absorbed in our lives that we lose track of time altogether, and we discover that time, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist.

Steve Taylor, Making Time: Why Time Seems to Pass at Different Speeds and How to Control It

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