It’s been said that time travel has already been discovered because we are all time travelers. We are traveling through time constantly. Of course, we only travel in one direction, at a rate of 1 second per second, but that’s still travel! More profound was Einstein’s realization that the rate of time can dilate, moving faster or slower for different frames of reference depending on how fast they are moving.
But what is more relevant for us in our everyday lives may be our subjective perception of the passage of time. Everyone has noticed that sometimes time seems to pass slowly and other times it seems to pass quickly. We generally notice this most when that is mismatched with our preference. A fun weekend, or our experience with children at a certain age, may wiz by leaving us wishing it hadn’t passed so quickly. Meanwhile, a wait in line or time spent saving up for a big move may seem agonizingly slow. Many of us have also noted how they’re not making years as long as they used to when we were younger. What I’d like to talk about here are some thoughts on why time seems to vary so widely is speed, and how you can control the rate time seems to pass for you.
The brain’s internal clock is a shoddy thing. It makes subjective judgments (guesses) on how much time has passed and we feel that as a general impression. I’m not a neuroscientist, but in my experience it has seemed to me that the brain makes this judgment by noting the number of discrete events that have taken place from point A in time to point B. This ends up being a bad method because the brain is also really sloppy in taking note when an event happens.
All else being equal, events with the most emotional impact stick in our memories and ho-hum everyday things (that happen a lot and we’ve become accustomed to) make very little mark on our memories. So, when you’re young almost every day contains high emotionally impacting events. Not only are our emotions less in control, but the newness of experiences make a big emotional impact just because of their novelty. A typical young child in any given year will experience their first baseball game, their first time driving outside their home city, and so on. So, when a young brain looks back over the past year, it counts a huge number of events and reports that a really long time has passed. When an older person looks back over the past year, there are far fewer events that were unique or novel enough to be taken note of. Thus, the year didn’t seem to take very long at all .
Now, what’s really interesting – and why you have the power to be a time traveler – is that you have the ability to override when and how your brain takes note of events. The brain may automatically direct our attention to emotionally impacting moments, but we can direct our attention in other ways too. Simply by directing our attention we can make events more or less impacting.
But it is hard to keep your attention honed in this way at all times because the mind will tend to drift if it’s receiving predictable inputs for long periods. If everything in your day goes in a pretty average manner then you will tend to slide into “autopilot”. So, maintaining and directing your attention at will is a skill – one you can get better at through certain practices.
The saying, “a watched pot never boils” comes from these facts. If you sit looking at a pot of water on the stove, waiting for it to boil, it will seem to take a very long time. That’s because your constant attention on the pot will make your mind take note of every… single… second. When you ask it how much time has passed, it will look at that long list of events and report “a very long time”. But when you get a phone call, that call is one event and it has magically seemed to boil far sooner!
People generally can’t stand having to sit and do nothing for even a relatively short period of time. In fact, in a very recent study at the University of Virginia, researchers found that people actually preferred giving themselves electric shocks to sitting alone with their thoughts in a room by themselves for 15 minutes! With a greater ability to control our attention, we needn’t be so desperately in need of stimuli.
As you have probably guessed, one of the most well known practices for honing our ability to maintain and direct our attention is meditation. Through mindfulness meditation, we can get a grasp on our mind and not be helplessly ruled by its chaotic bouncing from topic to topic, stimulus to impulse. Once we start to gain some mastery over our attention, we can use it in ways that either cause time to pass quickly, or more slowly as we choose.
One of the things I noticed in my earlier experiences with meditation is that, when I was able to maintain long periods of deep focus on the breath, everything else would disappear – including time. There were no thoughts or judgments about the past – no apprehensions or anticipations about the future – there was only now, and only the breath. Suddenly, the bell would sound and the meditation time would be up. I thought at first I might have set my timer incorrectly.
The next time you’re in a waiting room or similar situation, and have nothing else to do, you can hop in your time machine (the mind) and set your destination to the moment you are called upon. As you still your mind and focus your attention on the breath, you will exit the realm of time. But beware your power to re-enter it at will. If you constantly check back by wondering how much time has passed, or think about other things, these will create recordable moments, which add to the list of events the brain looks at when it decides how much time has passed. But as you get better at this, it will feel like you’ve jumped ahead faster than 1 second per second! And you will have used the moment to get in a little more meditation practice to boot.
What about slowing time down? Something else happened after I started practicing to increase my mindfulness. Before I got into this stuff, I had been experiencing what many people probably feel – that the days, weeks, and months were passing by faster and faster. As you get into your job and every day seems the same and every weekend even becomes more routine, you can raise your head up to look around and are surprised to see that it’s New Years Eve again so quickly (I think I got down to a rate of about 1 year per 4 subjective months).
But after I started to improve my mindfulness, I began to see novelty in the mundane. Not only did I notice more details about things, but I began to appreciate them more. My value judgments of the ‘normal things’ in life began to change. What would have been “just another day at the office” started to become populated by all these little events: seeing that old man walking his dog and feeling a little bit of his happiness; noticing the beauty of the bright sunlight piercing the canopy of trees on my street; wondering about what was making a co-worker smile as they walked from their car; being aware of what was causing my boss to say what he said; realizing a new way to do things better; seeing even simple routine times with loved ones like mini-vacations; and yes, roses. There were suddenly roses and other flowers of so many colors and smells, with a drama being played out among them as bees and other creatures went about their work.
After a year of mindfulness, my brain had quite a list and reported back to me that it had been a very long time indeed. At this rate, by the time I’m 60 I might squeeze in 70 or 80 years of life – who knows!
“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.”
— Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
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 The important point here is the effects of these practices. The exact neurological mechanisms behind them are not my area of expertise, but my guesses about them seem consistent with how these experiences feel, with conversations on mindfulness I’ve had with others, and a general impression after a number of books and articles on neuroscience I’ve read over the years. Here is one example of an article in Scientific American that discusses the relationship of memorable events and perception of time: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/2013/12/18/why-does-time-fly-as-we-get-older/.