Time Long Past

“Christmas comes round faster every time, Roger, and the years go by more quickly when you get to my age.” Grandma’s warning was also the annual refrain we heard from a lot of older folk as we grew up, and now as we climb into her years we nod agreement.

The end of a year is when time tends to assault our thoughts. It doesn’t, of course, really change outside of Dr. Who’s TARDIS, but the perception matters for every time traveler, and is more urgent when there are fewer miles ahead than in the rear-view mirror of your life.

Shelley

As a perception problem, it’s more the territory of psychology than physiology or physics, and psychologists have had plenty to say about it. For one thing, they found that Eastern and Western cultures agree that time seems to speed up with age, although I would love to know if primitive (I prefer the “primal”) societies share the experience.

ClockOver a century ago, William James suggested time steps into a gallop because there are fewer memorable events or milestones ahead for marking the course of our lives—first day at school, graduation day, first kiss, first job, etc. By analogy, we lose sense of distance traveled on a road trip out of a city when the mile markers peter out in the countryside.

It may have been true in Victorian times that the years seemed to become more “hollow and collapse,” but I think the theory of collapsing time is bunkum now: our lives are rarely static at any age, as long as we are in sound physical and mental health. We dash through torrents of change (“firsts”) in family life, the workplace, and where technology, economics and politics impact our lives. We never reach a slow, meandering river before advanced age.

Psychologists have other theories for time. Some suggest it’s all about the choice of metaphor, that young people may represent time with ones that are more static (e.g., a calm ocean) than their elders (e.g., a speeding train). Others say that our false perception is simply a result of time getting progressively shorter as a fraction of our lives.

But a large study in Germany in 2005 found rather little evidence of any relationship to age, and those who said that time was going fastest admitted feeling under more pressure. Perhaps the mystery largely boils down to lifestyle. I have even heard children say that time is going too fast for them, and they have never been under more pressure to achieve goals and fill schedules. They have fewer empty hours than in my day, which I spent “wasting time” birding in the woods, and when they break from structured activities their brains often feverishly turn to games and social media on their phones and tablets. They keep the pressure on their fingertips.

I hear the poet who dreamt of dwelling in a small clay and wattle cabin to stretch time among the bean-rows and bee-hives.

Yeats poem

As I send this greeting to readers I hope they chill-out during the holiday season and at every other opportunity, so they can report a year hence that 2016 came round more slowly!

Next Post: We’re all Cousins in the Same Family

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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