As Time Goes By

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As he approached his eightieth birthday, glass artisan Dominick Labino famously said, "When you reach this age, the Sunday Times comes every day." And so it seems, for we all notice how time seems to speed forward as we age.

With retirement comes, for many, the lack of structure that came with work schedules -- when meetings, appointments, and lectures were reliably slotted through the week. Now, how do we even know what day it is? Fortunately, this at least is easily remedied. The morning newspaper provides day and date information; a large wall calendar announces tasks and deeds for the day, maybe exercise class at 10, lunch with a friend at noon, and pick up a grandchild at 2. We maintain the illusion of control with our schedules, calendars, watches, and cell phones, but time seems unpredictably elastic -- maybe always, but certainly as we age. Why does it seem that time can sometimes speed by and sometimes stretch toward infinity?

Researchers studying the brain share several theories about this phenomenon, and offer a few ideas.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman describes his research in his many presentations on YouTube. He tells us that our perception of time is actually based on the number of things we remember. It seems that novel experiences use more energy and lay down a wider electrical imprint in our brains. Young children experience and attend to novelty frequently as they grow and learn. Hence their brains are likely to retain those experiences, and memories from our youth remain vivid.

As we age, our world becomes familiar to us. We tend to notice less that is new, for we engage in routines that often don't require our alert attention. We actually think about lots of other things, past, present and future, as we drive, cook, and go about our daily activities. Hence, we retain few details of those events.

But novelty can still activate our memory bank when we are alert to and focus on new experiences. Travel provides that kind of stimulus, as does playing with babies and young children. Even changing one's routine can help. New pursuits and new learning work as well. We may not recall the specifics of brushing our teeth yesterday morning, but there's no doubt we can remember holding a new grandchild for the first time, or landing at a foreign airport, or learning something we hadn't known before.

Warren Meck, psychologist and neuroscientist at Duke University points out that when you hit your 60s and 70s, and time is beginning to run out, certain experiences seem more precious. You will likely remember many details of those events. He also believes that older brains slow down and perceive the passage of time differently. He has shown that while young adults can estimate the passage of a minute at close to 60 seconds, older adults might identify the passage of a minute when actually 90 seconds have passed.

Time seems to expand when we're in danger or in heightened stress, as in extreme sports. The brain produces increased noradrenalin during an intense and exciting experience. Witness YouTube wing suit fliers. Apparently, in dangerous or threatening situations, chemicals in the brain recruit many neurological pathways to attend to, process and retain all information relevant to the event. In retrospect, we remember more details of the situation, and as the brain burns more energy, the experience seems to last longer.

It's thought that when there is danger or an accident, the brain tries to learn what works so it might react productively were such an event to reoccur.

Then there's the mathematical reality. Each day we live is a smaller fraction of the total time we've been alive. A child reaching her 10th birthday celebrates just 1/10 of life -- each day one of 3,650 days lived. A person turning 70 experiences that year as 1/70th of life, with each day one of 25,550 days lived.

Neuroscientists continue to work to unravel the complicated mechanisms that contribute to our perceptions of time. As we reach our 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond, we understand we are further from our beginning and closer to the end of our lives. We may see this as an opportunity to be grateful for time, to appreciate it as our most precious commodity. What we do with it is what life is about.

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