“Time is a rubbery thing.”
When I saw that quotation under a photo of a young neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston while browsing old issues of The New Yorker* at Juan’s Café Etc, I ordered another coffee and devoured the article. The variability of our perception of time is a subject that has fascinated me for . . . ah . . . a long time. Actually, the variability in my perception of time is what has fascinated me, thoroughgoing solipsist that I am. The variability in your perception of time interests me, too, but not nearly as much.
David Eagleman explains that time is a sense, like the senses of taste, sight, smell, and all. However, our sense of time is not localized in our brain as these other senses are. Rather, our sense of time is threaded through all of our other senses.
Eagleman has a phantasmagoria of theories about our perception of time and is ingenious in his devising of revealing—and entertaining—experiments to explore those theories. Through the auspices of Brian Eno, for example, he devised an experiment to track neurologically how an assortment of prominent rock and jazz drummers are able preternaturally to keep perfect time with their drum kits.
In another experiment he attempted to measure how time slows down for a person experiencing a life-threatening event. He did this by subjecting his volunteers to a terrifying thrill ride called “Zero Gravity.” Time slowed down for them when they were in the midst of it. It was in connection with that experiment that he said, “It suggests that time and memory are so tightly intertwined that they may be impossible to tease apart.”
Let me pause and confess something to you here. I have been carefully observing the deterioration of my own brain as I age for some years now. It interests me, and it interests me for more than the obvious reasons. The two aspects of this that interest me most are trite in that they are talked of so much, the decreasing efficiency of my memory and my perception that the passage of time is accelerating. That statement above came as an epiphany for me. These two phenomena, accelerating time and decreasing memory, are not separate and distinct symptoms of the deterioration of the brain. Rather, they are part and parcel of the same thing.
Sure enough, then came this paragraph:
“One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, he explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. 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.
That was all the article had to offer on the acceleration of time as we age, but that was a lot.
Clearly, excessive dozing speeds up the passage of time. But do we not also fall in love with routine as we age? Do we not become more uncomfortable with the unfamiliar as we age? Unfamiliar music. Unfamiliar food. Unfamiliar living quarters. Unfamiliar hobbies or pastimes. Unfamiliar people. An unfamiliar culture. But Eagleman’s statement clearly suggests that routine in old age will speed up the passage of time. Perhaps that is what some old people want—those suffering chronic pain, for example–to get it behind them.
For some time I have had the vague conviction that if I jam as many new and strange things into my life as possible as I age, that would be a good thing. David Eagleman has given me some scientific basis to think that I might be onto something. I am forcing my aging memory to write down new detail, which in turn slows down time.
It also happens to be fun. My personal code of conduct now is, if it ain’t fun, I ain’t doing it.
This has nothing to do with any wish to live into advanced old age. Ten more years that seem like thirty would be ideal. (But check back with me on that when I am 75.) Thirty more years that seem like ten is the thing to be avoided. Dementia terrifies me far more than oblivion does.
Maybe I should throw in a little more life-threatening experience, too. I have been thinking about a motorcycle for a couple of years now, although it seems like only a couple of months.
*The Possibilian, Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker, 25 April 2011, p. 54