I remember when my children were very young, and we lived in Virginia, I came to see my family’s life as being on a familiar loop: Putting up the Christmas lights, followed by hunting for Easter baskets and celebrating a raft of spring birthdays, then summers at the pool and, before long, the hunt for the perfect Halloween costumes.
A great loop — but a fast and familiar one, nonetheless.
I commented to friends then that my loop seemed to be gaining speed, and I supposed it would do so until it stopped for good.
In a surprise to me, the loop changed venues after an unexpected divorce.
In the suburbs of Chicago, a similar loop developed in my new life as a single mom with school-aged kids. Faster and faster it went, until I waved goodbye to that home, too — after nine years that felt like two.
And now I’m with a new husband in yet another home, and beginning to watch my children go off to college and wondering how quickly this loop will get into high speed. But will it? I’ve come to hope that this time around, so to speak, I may be able to slow things down a little.
I’d always thought it seemed that time speeded up as we got older because, relative to our life span, it does. A year to a 2-year-old is half a lifetime; to an 80-year-old, it’s a small fraction of a lifetime, leaving us powerless to stop the speed-up.
But in discussing this recently with a dear friend from high school — has it actually been more than 30 years? — while I lamented the inexorability of the increasing rush of time, she explained that I had it all wrong. (If only I would slow down and consider the matter!)
What we talked about that evening led me to find out more, and this is what I discovered: A wide range of research suggests that while the relative-time argument has merit for why time feels like it goes faster as we get older, there’s something else that may account much more for the phenomenon. It turns out that our brains have to work hard at taking in new information, and the effort needed to process the novel information exaggerates our sense of time involved. In contrast, when things are familiar, the brain can shortcut right through it with sort of a “been here, done that, let’s move on” mentality that makes time seem to go faster.
No wonder taking a math test can seem like an eternity, but dinner with close friends in the same amount of time goes by in a moment.
Time really does fly when we’re having fun.
So then it should be no surprise that familiar life loops and routines, more and more the typical pattern of life as we get older and more established, give our brains endless shortcuts. But a child or other young person taking in new information at every turn, having a constantly busy brain — well, that makes time seem much slower.
As writers Belle Beth Cooper and Caroline Gregoire outlined it for one piece I looked at, this one in The Healer’s Journal, from this summer, research shows that “if we feed our brains more new information, the extra processing time required will make us feel like time is moving more slowly.”
They and other writers and researchers on the subject said new experiences, learning new things, simply working to notice the same or novel things more (pile on the details and information), minimizing routine and brain shortcuts — are all ways to change the perception of time passing quickly.
In other words, with a little practice, maybe we can slow time down to a steady jog, or occasionally even walk.
Well, I’m glad to have this information as I start my new loop.
Timing is everything.
Reach Betsy Hart at www.betsysblog.com.