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Why time warps




Time appears to speed up as we get older at least until a certain point in our lives. Think of it – if you are middle aged you are likely to feel that several months or whole years have flashed by unbelievably fast - and you hardly noticed them. Before you know it, it’s a year since you went on that holiday, or visited a particular friend or member of the family. It might even feel like you only moved into a new house a ‘short while’ ago, while in reality many years have gone by. Does this seem familiar? And then, when you look back at say your school years – the 10 or 12 years you spent in school seem to feel like they were an eternity. Certainly they felt that way when you were ‘trapped’ in school. Think back on the 12 years of school or on the 3 or 4 years of college and then think about the last 10 years of your life (assuming you are in midlife). Somehow, time seems to speed up (and compress) as you grow out of childhood and into youth, adulthood and then midlife.


Besides the explanation all of us have for this - that midlife is full of things to do, to 'look after', and ‘busy-ness’ around matters of family and career and the general ‘demands and responsibilities of life’ leaving us a sense of ‘not enough time’, there may also be a simple mathematical reason for this. When you are young, say 5 years old, a year is one-fifth of your life. So experientially (in terms of everything you have taken in through your senses, learnt and done) it is a good 20% of your life – a big chunk of it. When you are 20 years old, a year becomes one-twentieth – or 5% of your life. At say, 50, it’s only one-fiftieth of your life – or 2% of it. So experientially speaking, time does compress. If you go by this simple mathematical explanation – it would mean that as you get older, time will only (seem to) rush by at an increasingly faster rate. Not welcome news for most of us.


But is there something to be said about the ‘demands of life’ factor as well? We all know that for the elderly, time seems to hang heavily upon them. For dependent or frail and infirm elders who are unable to see or do as much as they used to – the minutes, hours, days and years flow more languidly (not always, in their situation, a pleasant thing). This suggests that not doing as much, would mean that time stretches out. Consider also what happens when you go away from your regular ‘rush of life’ schedule – not on a typical vacation package type trip because that mostly means you are getting busier (!) – but on say an unplanned, impromptu trip to a non-descript, out of the way place, say a village where you accompany a friend, where there may really be nothing to see or do. Your day seems to stretch out. You will look at your watch thinking it is 4pm and find that it is only 2, for example. So there is clearly something going on here that warps our sense of the flow of time. The less you do, the passage of time seems to slow down.


But then again, this is not a complete or consistent explanation either. Consider this.


Think about a situation where you, say, visit a new part of the country or the world – and feverishly – out of anticipation, excitement and enthusiasm pack your day with exploring and experiencing the new. At the end of a long, event packed day – you sit back and get dinner (or a drink, perhaps) and wonder how it feels that you’ve been in town longer than the fourteen hours you actually have. Time seems to have stretched (and its flow slowed) for you, although you did so much.


So what makes this particular experience of time different from the slowing of time when you did less?


Is it perhaps that we experience the rate of flow of time in inverse proportion to the ‘new-ness’ and freshness of our experience? The more routine and forced our activity is – like in the routine of our daily lives and within the overbearingly familiar - the faster time seems to move & our lives rush past us, somewhat inconsequentially. But when you even just sit back in an unfamiliar place and observe an unfamiliar (new) world, or conversely rush around to gobble up the new in great big gulps and can’t have enough of it – time seems to stretch. When you were a child everything was new – and each unit of time that passed constituted a larger fraction of your net experience (the mathematical factor we spoke of earlier) - so for both these reasons time seemed to stretch.


So what sort of prescription does this lead to for a 'long' and engaging life for all of us? Constantly seek out the new, abandon routine (or find ways of seeing & experiencing routine differently), seek change, seek new places and experiences, be restless and keep moving?


In other words, getting ‘off the treadmill’, not on one, sounds indeed like the way to live longer.



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