So we have arrived at the long weekend. It is a time first for remembering those who sacrificed their lives in wartime serving their country. It also marks the unofficial start of summer when days are longer, with more time seemingly to do the things we enjoy.
That is, except for those of us in our 50s, 60s and beyond. Time appears to be accelerating. We marvel about the feeling in conversation, nodding, scratching our heads, seeking clues about how to slow things down.
In thinking about the year ahead, it all can go by so fast — July Fourth, a summer vacation, back to school, the election, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, snowfalls, March Madness, Easter and back to Memorial Day weekend. A year can seem like a Saturday running errands, a list in hand, a series of stops, a few hours, and you’re done.
And then, in a flash, it is Saturday again, another list, more stops. What happened to the rest of the days of the week?
The acceleration in play differs from the one you experience when concentrating on something, or because you are busy, or having a good time. Many remark about how jam-packed their days are. What I have in mind resembles the way old movies portrayed the passage of time, pages of days flying off the calendar in a blizzard.
Why as we get older does time appear to move more rapidly?
This isn’t a question that has escaped the attention of researchers. Much exploration has been performed. Seeking some grounding on the subject, I turned to David Baker, the executive director of the Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron. He pointed to a 2009 paper by F. Thomas Bruss of the Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium and Ludger Ruschendorf of the University of Freiburg in Germany.
Bruss and Ruschendorf explain that because perception is essentially “the process of interpreting sensory information,” it follows that our perception of time will flow from how we experience a changing world. They also note how tricky the study of time can be. Time cannot be controlled, stopped, increased or decreased.
Tests are conducted for the short term, say: State when you think a minute has passed. Bruss and Ruschendorf examine the perception of time for the long term. They add that you can’t exactly ask participants to look back 40 years and estimate how long it took to get where they are today.
What they reinforce is how the perception of time appears “closely connected with the number of new, unusual or remarkable events.” Episodes with such things usually seem to pass quickly. Yet looking back, you discover they have made a deeper impression, and “now seem much longer than less exciting periods of life.”
Bruss and Ruschendorf take the insight a step further, amplifying on a concept called time paradoxon. Consider that most of the new, major or first events in our lives take place when we are younger, or at least there are many more than in our later years. Thus, the analysis goes, all of these episodes of deeper impression mean a month of childhood feels much longer than a month of adulthood.
With age, we settle into routines, that first time to the ballpark, or to a concert or to the beach giving way to a much higher number, that first Super Bowl turning into 30, 40 and counting, the impression hardly as intense. As a result, Bruss and Ruschendorf explain, the feeling of time is “thinned out.”
And in that thinning, time begins to fly, unavoidably.
What Bruss and Ruschendorf added to the work is a mathematical model to capture this thinning on a logarithmic scale, the perception of time proportional to the number of new or important events.
There are other ideas about this feeling of accelerating time. One points to our brains slowing down, and thus what happens around us seems to move faster.
Another focuses more sharply on proportionality. When you are age 10, five years amounts to half of your life. At 60, those five years rate as a much smaller fraction, inviting the feeling of things moving more quickly.
What Bruss and Ruschendorf stress is that all of this is “a feature of life rather than a feature of time because life is sequential … and just embedded in time.” Still, hard not to pursue countermeasures, addressing the cruel touch, time seeming to move faster just as you hope to see it slow down.
I have taken to savoring the end of NBA playoff games, when 23.6 seconds easily turn into 10 minutes or more. Or soccer players on the ground in apparent agony. (No jeers! He is trying to slow time!) Or a passage of fine writing, imagining how it came to be constructed in just that way. Or each touch of the piano keys delivered by Mitsuko Uchida or Art Tatum.
Of course, I might as well try to keep darkness at bay, holding to the quiet dusk, seeking to squeeze a few more minutes of daylight. I am approaching my seventh decade. Time isn’t slowing down.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at email@example.com.