“The days are long, but the years are short.”
Most of us know the feeling well: As we grow up and fill our days with more busyness, time seems to fly by faster and faster. Of course, we know that time is moving at the same rate as it did during childhood, when lazy summer days seemed to stretch on infinitely. But what’s changed is our perception of time. According to neuroscientific research recently highlighted by Inc. Magazine, how the brain perceives time passing determines whether our days feel luxuriously long, or short and harried — and it’s something that we have a certain level of control over. By paying attention and actively noticing new things, we can slow time down.
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The Inc. Magazine article pointed us to a 2011 New Yorker profile of David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who studies time perception and calls time a “rubbery thing” that changes based on mental engagement. Inc. highlighted this passage, written by Burkhard Bilger:
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,’ Eagleman 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.
Eagleman’s research made headlines again this week. We’ve all heard the saying, “The days are long, but the years are short.” And it’s true: In the case of very familiar events — like your morning commute to work — you may even find that although it feels endless while you’re sitting in traffic, looking back, you can barely recall the time passing. According to Eagleman, that’s is because your brain isn’t taking in much new information. Lifehacker wrote an article on a Big Think blog post about the neuroscientist, explaining why a mundane activity that feels tediously long can seem, in retrospect, to have passed by in a heartbeat.
“The reason is you didn’t lay down any new footage during the flight,” Eagleman wrote. “There was nothing new happening. There were no events and so when you look back on it you can’t remember it at all.”
British journalist Claudia Hammond echoed the idea that the amount of input our brain is receiving at any given moment can create a “time warp.” An Elle review of her new book, “Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception,” explained:
Humans seem to process the world in three-second increments (the duration of a handshake, the length of the annoying sound computers make when they start up, and the periodic rhythm of speech), and we develop a sense for how those increments sync with clock time. Time can warp when our brain receives much more or less input than usual in a three-second span. (For example, time slows down when you are about to crash your car, but you can easily lose a whole day watching things on YouTube.)
So the solution to the time-flying problem? Do more, or rather, notice more. It’s certainly not a new idea: The essence of mindfulness — a practice with roots in ancient Buddhist philosophy that’s becoming increasingly popular in the Western world — is cultivating a focused attention on the here and now, which science has shown can help our brains to store more information and thereby alter our perceptions of how fast time is passing.