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Speed-bumps and fast lanes along the passage of time

By Dr Doug Witherspoon - 23rd Jun 2024

passage of time

The Dorsal View keeps its fickle finger on noteworthy events for the benefit of our readers, and June is quite dense with notable anniversaries and commemorations. Apart from the anniversary of D-Day, which was covered in the last issue, there are a few dates this month that are worth taking notice of. Some of these will jog a memory or two for the more ‘seasoned’ among us, such as the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s life sentence being handed down on 12 June 1964.

Others are more obscure. For example, did you know that on 4 June 1784, Élisabeth Thible became the first woman to fly in an untethered hot air balloon? Of course not, only the most hard-core balloonatics would know that one (no offence meant to the angioplasty folks). But some notable June events are in the recent past – the first marriage ceremony between two men was conducted on 5 June 2004 by the then Mayor of Bégles in France, even though same-sex marriage had not yet been legalised in that country.

It wasn’t until 27 June 1957 that the British Medical Research Council reported a cause-and-effect relationship between smoking and lung cancer, while on 29 June 2007, Apple released its first iPhone. On 1 June 1974, Cincinnati surgeon Dr Henry J Heimlich penned an article for the journal Emergency Medicine, outlining a technique to prevent people from choking. And 42 years later, on 23 June 2016, Britain voted in favour of Brexit.

Some of these events only seem like yesterday, while others are a foggy memory. This led me to wonder why time sometimes seems to pass more slowly, and at other times it seems to ‘fly by’. The next obvious question is, is there any research into this type of time perception?

The answer, of course, is yes. In fact, there is a side-specialty of psychology that looks specifically at our perception of time and how it is influenced by our emotions and other factors. There is also the adage that ‘time goes faster as you get older’ – this has been studied too, although there is a lack of consensus as to the cause. One likely hypothesis is that as a 10-year-old, for example, a year represents a significant portion of our lived experience (10 per cent of our lives and 15-to-20 per cent of our conscious memory). For an 80-year-old person, a year represents a much smaller portion of their life and they will not look back on it with much difference in how they did when they were 77 or 78 years old.

“…. So in this case, they are looking back on fewer events,” according to Prof Cindy Lustig, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. “When you’re looking back, the less rich your representation is, the more it’s going to seem like the time went by quickly.”

Simply put, our minds tend to bunch together periods of time that we perceive as similar – if you’re a 55-year-old whose daily or weekly routine is quite similar, the brain mashes the weeks and months together, creating the perception that time is passing more quickly.

As a result, some posit that if we fill our months and years with new sensations and experiences, this may have the effect of ‘slowing’ our perception of the passage of time.

There is also a physiological hypothesis as to why time seems to fly faster the older we get. A 2020 article in Psychology Today by Dr Clifford Lazarus (PhD) points to the fact that young children have faster heart rates and faster breathing rates than adults. He raises the possibility that the electrophysical undulations and rhythms of children’s brains fire-up more quickly, pointing to a ‘neural metronome’ that influences our internal perception of the passage of time.

If you ask a child to sit quietly, close their eyes, and tell you when they think a minute has passed, says Lazarus, they will typically say a minute has passed after around 40 seconds or less. Try this with seniors and other adults, and they will say a minute has passed after 60 or 70 seconds. This could mean that children’s brains ‘beat’ faster than adults, creating a more conscious experience of a unit of time. This, so the theory goes, contributes to the perception of time passing more slowly as a child.

As Groucho Marx famously said: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

Until the next issue, may the time pass slowly enough for you to catch a whiff of the roses.

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