Friday, 2 May 2008

As time flies by faster and faster

high speed
Maybe you are not yet aware of it, but if you'll approach my age, that is, in the second half of your life, you inevitably will come to the impression that time hurries up faster than before.

It must be more than ten years ago when I had this feeling for the first time. Since then, I always have asked myself how come, and I have developed a theory: Our mind uses all the events in lifetime as a benchmark for measuring time. For a young child, the things that happen during one day are a considerable proportion of all the events during lifetime. For an old person, the events of one day are only a tiny fraction of all lifetime events. In other words, a day is about 1/3000 lifetime of an eight year old child but only 1/30,000 lifetime of an eighty year old senior. Assuming that our mind uses lifetime as a time benchmark, one day must appear shorter and shorter with age.

Memory is the key

A recent experiment of David M. Eagleman and co-workers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, has added an important point that my theory has missed. I was right assuming that mind uses events to assess the length of time. But memory also plays an important role. A child will store more events per time in his memory, and an old person will store only a smaller fraction of the same events because memory gets weaker in old age. Less stored events give the impression that time runs faster than in younger age.

My son had a bike accident some years ago. He told me that he had the impression of time running very slowly after his bike had crashed into a car. This is in accordance with the event benchmark theory given the fact that in high danger, all senses are highly alerted and a great number of details are stored in memory.

Eagleman has undertaken similar experiments with volunteers in a situation where they were falling into an invisible net, not really in danger but perceiving a highly dangerous situation. He concluded that people in danger do not live in a “slow-motion" situation in real time but, after the event, they have the impression of time running slower because they have stored more details in that time. Thus, real time does not slow down in a frightening event, but the time in retrospect does.

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