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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Illustration by Jess Fink

“For we might have run, and if we had run we should, I believe, have burst into flames.” So wrote H.G. Wells in “The New Accelerator,” a 1901 short story about a wonderful drug that speeds up its users, transforming them into near-meteors as they encounter the friction of the everyday atmosphere. “Almost certainly we should have burst into flames”! Science fiction treats constantly with time anxiety: Speed someone up and the world slows down. Send astronauts to space and they barely age as decades pass on the planet they left behind, as in Ursula K. LeGuin’s heartbreaking early novella Rocannon's World, which also features flying giant cats. Or take the film Looper, which articulated a profound modern fear: That no matter what we do, no matter how hard we fight it, we are each of us doomed to become Bruce Willis.

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And then there’s plain old everyday psychological time, the real, non-science-fictional stuff passing us by, which we perceive via the throbbing gearwork in our brains. The psychology of that kind of time—not the physics or philosophy of it—is the subject of British science journalist Claudia Hammond’s lively book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception.

It’s a book about mental apparatus. How do we know a moment has passed? Hammond’s best bet is that we use the brain’s dopamine system along with a few other brain components. “We are creating our own perception of time,” she writes, “based on the neuronal activity in our brains with input from the physiological symptoms of our bodies.” The answer is not in our stars but in “the cerebellum, the basal ganglia, the frontal lobe and the anterior insular cortex.”

Ever since Oliver Sacks, pop psychology has trafficked in damaged brains, and in exploring the ways that science understands our perception of time Hammond makes the first half of her book into a catalog of head trauma. There is the man with the injury to the right frontal lobe who lost his ability to accurately estimate the passage of time, the folks in vegetative states who don’t blink in anticipation of an air-puffer (and thus have lost all sense of the future), the people who suffer brain damage and can’t differentiate between decades, and poor Henry Molaison, who, as treatment for his seizures, had a silver straw inserted into his brain and his hippocampus partially sucked out, and consequently, until he died 45 years later in 2008, never made any new memories, living forever in the past. Henry’s story was much like that of another man who slipped off his motorcycle and thus can’t think of the future.

Hammond is good company, that is, but this is a not-unpadded book. There is some blatant narrative foolery that hardly suits the story. The tale of a BASE jumper awkwardly named Chuck Berry is cut off, Da Vinci Code–style, literally in midair. “Now,” writes Hammond, “I'm sure you're wondering what happened to Chuck Berry, our base-jumping glider pilot who was left suspended in the air, his body falling and time dilating. I'm afraid you won't find out right away, as there are many other issues to explore.” Are there?

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Anyway, Berry survives, the better to explain his perceptions; as he hurtled to earth time appeared to slow down and he made sensible decisions that saved his life. It’s not so much that we speed up in a crisis, exactly, as that the internal human clock that tracks time is variable. Hammond on ganglia is more fun than Hammond pacing out a skydiving story; neither the book or its readers are well-served by the imperatives of modern science writing (“We need stories to make this brain stuff palatable to mouth-breathers!”), the relentless adherence to form (Colon: The Story of Two Dots That Changed Publishing). Time is such an urgent subject, so local to our thoughts, that it needs very little narrative easing. The looming specter of death sells this book just fine.

Once Hammond puts down the skull saw (around Chapter 4) things pick up, and she digs into big, ambiguous questions. A chapter on “Why time speeds up as you get older” is the good stuff. She starts with conventional wisdom, i.e. “A year feels faster at the age of 40 because it's only one fortieth of your life, whereas at the age of eight a year forms a far more significant proportion.” Too simple, she says; as William James once wrote, “the days, the months, and the years [seem shorter]; whether the hours do so is doubtful, and the minutes and seconds to all appearance remain about the same.” It turns out that we form a “preponderance of memories” of life between age 15 and age 25: “first sexual relationships, first jobs, first travel without parents, first experience of living away from home.” This psychological phenomenon has a wonderful name: the Reminiscence Bump.

“We even remember more scenes from the films we saw and the books we read in our late teens and early twenties,” writes Hammond. One of the reasons time seems to speed up is that we actually have more memories of our youth. Which could explain why every generation freaks out over the one that follows: We’ve already made our memories, and to see these new little memory-factories with their own music, their own films, their own ideas when our own ideas still feel so fresh and fertile—their youth is an insult and it will not stand.

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