The Days Go By Slowly but the Years Go By Fast. Why?

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2013 11:40 AM

Summers Fly, Winters Walk

Why does our perception of time change so dramatically from season to season and year to year?

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Author Claudia Hammond
Claudia Hammond

Courtesy of Ian Skelton

I remember feeling particularly old one day when I read a YouTube comment on a Kesha video. It said something like, in typically unpunctuated Tubese: this is garbag these morans don’t know god music whever happens to really music like Alanis. You’re only as old as the music you hate. Or consider the recent manufactured fuss over millennials (they’re lazy! they won’t pay attention! but maybe they’re great!) perpetrated by Time magazine. Just watch this video of Time editor Joel Stein living like a millennial for a day to see what happens when one type of reminiscence bumps into another. Or read Steve Albini complaining about the rap collective Odd Future. Ugly bumpings indeed.

As Hammond points out, many people see time spatially, going from left to right—unless they speak Hebrew or Arabic, which are right-to-left languages. For those people time moves in the opposite direction. And as for speakers of Mandarin, traditionally written top-to-bottom (even though it’s increasingly left-to-right on computer screens)? They are eight times more likely than English speakers to “lay time out vertically, usually pointing up into the air for earlier events and down for later ones.” Also, we think about time in terms of space, but not the other way around; no one says, Hammond points out, that a street is four minutes long.

Extrapolating just a bit, perhaps humans “see” time as a space, see their youths as a place. And when a new generation crops up it threatens the territory of the old one, they move in and colonize that zone of human life known as youth. Begone, Pixies, and make way for Imagine Dragons.

Not that Hammond would speculate like this; she sticks with the science. She isn’t afraid of a little ambiguity, though. The human understanding of time is hardly a solved problem; the Reminiscence Bump, while a real phenomenon, does not fully explain why time seems to speed up as you age. (You need to factor in also that we are making fewer memories every year—the Holiday Paradox, referring to how holidays seem to fly by but loom large in our memories.) Her agent is probably annoyed Hammond didn’t write The Reminiscence Bump: How Your Memories of High School Can Help You Predict the Future, but it’s nice to read a science book that isn’t buttoned up.

A well-researched meditation on how we see the future is the meat of the book; the real purpose of our memories, Hammond points out, may be to help us anticipate the future. Memories serve as our guides to decision-making; more so, the sorts of choices—and thus memories—we make classify us into human categories, whether we choose one marshmallow now or two later.

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We know you can’t trust memories, which means, says Hammond, that you can’t trust your predictions of the future. On our way to a picnic we anticipate the picnic, not the traffic. On our way to the doctor we don’t imagine drinking a cold glass of water in a calm waiting room but rather being probed and questioned. “We expect the best of good events,” she writes, “and the worst of the bad. We imagine that if something grave happens to us, we won't be able to cope, and that if something positive happens it will make us so happy that our lives will be transformed. But in both cases we will still be the same people we are now.”

Which is also why we all suck at scheduling; we set our deadlines months out never expecting to be as busy then as we are today. Everyone believes that they will somehow be better, less burdened, and more free in the future. But “forever yearning for that calm future where everything is perfectly organized sets you up for disappointment.” Which is a comfort of a sort. Because the great question of time is not, of course, “Why do I remember so many songs from 1989?” or “Will Chuck Berry survive his BASE-jumping excursion?” or even “Can dogs remember individual events?” (They can’t, which also means they probably don’t feel regret, which sounds great to me.) There’s one great question of time, one which of course this book cannot answer, but on which it gives a great deal of much-needed perspective: “How much do I have left?”

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Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond. Harper Perennial.

Paul Ford is a writer who lives in New York City. He is the sole proprietor of Ftrain.com.