A week or so before I left to head to the U.K. I read Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, by Claudia Hammond.
It was one of the most interesting books I’ve read in ages.
I was struck in particular by her main theory about how we perceive time. She argues that our perception of how quickly or slowly time is passing is directly related to how many memories we are making. We only lay down long-term memories when we do something out of the ordinary or experience something different or do something for the first time. It’s why we can remember so much of a trip overseas, but can’t remember what we ate for dinner two nights ago. At the same time, if we are doing something different and having new experiences, short-term time- each individual day- seems to pass more quickly. She calls it the holiday paradox- holidays seem to pass in a blink of an eye, because the day is filled with new experiences, but when we get home again it feels like we’ve been gone for ages because we’ve filled up our memory banks. It’s also, she argues, why we feel our lives speed up and time passes more quickly as we get older- we have fewer firsts to experience than we did when adolescents and young adults (first time moving out of home, first time having sex, going to uni, getting a job, etc.), so we lay down fewer memories, so our older years seem less full and there’s less to catch our attention when we look back. It’s also why when you go for a walk in a new area the outward journey always seems to take longer than when you turn around to come home again- on the way home your brain realizes it’s seen this place before so it doesn’t pay as much attention to the surroundings and doesn’t lay down as much memory.
I’m not sure I’m doing a brilliant job of explaining this, but it was an amazing theory that made so much sense. It’s a great book.
Anyway, one of the arguments she makes when discussing this perception of time relates to parents of young children. For parents of young children (especially very young children), each individual day can drag- the hours stretch out and seem endless (who hasn’t counted down the clock until naptime/bedtime while feeling the day will never end?). This is because so much of looking after young children is repetitive- we feed them, change them, dress them, bathe them, take them to the park, read stories, etc. day after day. The repetition isn’t engaging our brain- our brain isn’t busy taking in new stimuli, so time drags.
But, seemingly paradoxically, one thing all parents of young children marvel at is how quickly time goes by. “I can’t believe s/he is six weeks/two months/six months/one year/two years” we all cry. “How did this happen? When did s/he get so big/become so grown up?” (For proof, see literally every single letter I’ve written to E. I think around the third or fourth month I actually said that the days were slow but time itself seemed to be flying by.)
Hammond’s argument is that the overall time seems to fly by because constant repetition does not encourage our brains to lay down more permanent memories. We’re so heavily engaged in these repetitive routine tasks and we’re not laying down new memory, so when we look back there isn’t a lot to grab our brain’s attention. Plus we have the ever-present physical reminder that time is passing in our child’s rapid growth and development.
Hammond ultimately says that you can’t have it both ways- if you want overall time to slow down, you have to fill your days with new experiences. If you look back on a year packed full with new things, the year will seem like it went by more slowly than a year where you just did the same thing, day in, day out. (It’s worth noting that “new experiences” doesn’t have to mean constant vacations to exotic locales- it could be as simple as taking new routes to work, or trying new food.)
But, if you do this, each individual day will fly by, because your brain is active and engaged and making memories.
So your vacation will feel like it went by in a flash, but in the long run those two weeks once you’re home again will feel so much longer than the two weeks before you left where you kept to your routine.
Personally I know I would vote for days that fly by and a busy life filled with memories rather than individual days that drag and years that seem to pass faster and faster.
I’m glad I read this book before coming to the U.K. I’ve been here for almost a week now, and I can say with confidence that each day has flown by, but that I feel like it’s been quite a long week. Now, thanks to Hammond, I know exactly why that’s the case. And it will hopefully serve as a reminder for me to keep trying new things and seeking out new experiences, even little inconsequential ones, as things start to settle into a routine- because they will; we are creatures of habit. Before I know it I won’t be noticing how the sun bathes the university buildings in a golden light, or how the pheasants and the hares fill the fields in the evenings, or even the window displays in the shops. Before too long I won’t have to get my bearings when I’m in the centre of town- I’ll be able to do it instinctively, without thinking. Before too long I’ll stop noticing the marvellous architecture. Before too long I’ll be taking these sights and experiences for granted, and I’ll forget just how lucky I am to have this opportunity.
And then, I now know, I’ll stop making memories.