Yesterday I decided to watch a documovie – (is that the word?) of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. I loved all that moon-shot stuff when I was a kid but caught myself also wondering why was there so many movies and news items and fuss for what must be the events 40th anniversary this month. But then it hit me… it was actually coming up to the 50th year and was quite obviously something that would be celebrated because it was all but certain that I, like almost everyone else who witnessed those grainy live TV images of Neil Armstrong taking his ‘One small step for a man – one giant leap for mankind’ onto the surface of the moon on the 20th of July 1969, would be long dead by the time of its 100 anniversary.
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I have to admit it disturbed me a little and not for the first time it got me wondering about the worrying speed of time passing.
We live in a society that celebrates and caters so much more for youth. They are the next marketing opportunity of course, so our social and mainstream media seems almost obsessed with a message along the lines of ‘Youth is good – getting older is not so good’. Still who amongst us freely embraces the inevitable onrush of old age? I certainly don’t and even pride myself about being in touch with what younger people like and get up to, although that is to a certain extent a delusion… How many times have you had a chat with someone much younger than you, perhaps one of your kids or maybe even one of your grand kids and thought – yes I may be getting on a bit but I am still in touch with popular culture because I can name at least one music group that they are into at the moment… We tell ourselves we still got it. Yet a moment later you mention someone from your youth – say the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or someone like Jimi Hendrix and they just give you a vacant stare. “but you must have at least heard of them?” you ask your 11 year old granddaughter almost pleadingly but in vain. Then you even suspect that she is kidding you… but they are not.
Imagine someone asked you at her age if you had heard of ‘O Solo Mio’ by Enrico Curuso or perhaps ‘Yes we have no Banana’s’ by Billy Jones or say his later hit ‘Me and my Shadow’? No…? then what about something more recent like ‘Sonny Boy’ by Al Jolson? Believe it or not that is how distant the songs of your youth may now sound to them. What about TV – a friend of mine’s young son just laughed nervously when I once mentioned TV used to be in black and white or that people were allowed to smoke in cinemas, on aeroplanes or upstairs on double-decker busses. Perhaps in another 40 or 50 years time the youth will be equally sceptical then astonished that the American public – despite knowing he often lied to them several times a day – once voted for a self obsessed sociopath like Donald Trump… Or that the people in the UK – who had watched our broken parliamentary system get nowhere near a decision on Brexit – the most ruinous act of self harm since the second world war – were now forced to watch impotently as a cartoon clown of a man called Boris Johnston, who has threatened to push through Brexit at any cost – was installed as a Conservative prime minister by less than 0.25% of the voting population.
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When we were kids summer holidays did seem to last forever, and the wait between birthdays and Christmases often felt like an eternity. But now we are older, time just seems to flash by, with months, seasons and entire years just disappearing when it only seemed like a few weeks ago we were singing auld-lang-syne at a New Year party? This feeling of acceleration of time isn’t particularly because we fill our older lives with more responsibilities, events or worries. Research actually does seem to show that perceived time moves much quicker for older people which in itself makes us feel much more busy as it rushes by. Why does this happen? There are many theories of course but one idea is that our slowing metabolism – a feature of getting older, when our hearts beat slower and we breathe less often – also gradually alters our internal biological clock. A child’s biological clock beats much more quickly so they experience more heartbeats, breaths etc. than us in a fixed period of time, which makes it feel like more time has passed for them than for us.
Most people tend to perceive a period of time against the proportion of time they have already lived through. So for a four year old, a year is a quarter of the life they have already lived, which might explain why it feels like a very long period of time waiting between birthdays at that age. To a ten-year-old, a year is only 10 per cent of their life so that wait isn’t quite so bad and for a 20-year-old a year is only 5 per cent of their life when using the same scale. Therefore, in order for a 20-year-old to experience the same proportional increase of life lived like that of a four year-old waiting between birthdays, they would have to wait until they turned 25 to celebrate their own birthday. So it is perhaps unsurprising that time does appear to go faster as we grow older.
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Another idea is that the passage of time we perceive is directly related to the amount of new information we absorb; information that will eventually become continuous automatic processes. Like riding a bike or learning a new skill. With lots of new stimuli our brains take longer to process such information so that period of time initially feels longer. Perhaps when faced with these new challenges our brains record richer and much more detailed memories, so detailed our recollection of the experience is that it felt much slower than it actually was. However, the more familiar we become with our surroundings and our perpetual tasks or the details of our homes, workplace and the jobs we do the less we seem to notice these day-to-day experiences of life. So indeed time can seem to run faster as we age. this is probably why when people have had head injuries or enter the mid to later stages of dementia that those richer and more detailed memories from our younger days are much easier to recall. For many they seem as if they are living a second childhood with the richer memories they relate and even some of their learnt behaviours.
For children our world is often an unfamiliar place full of new experiences to deal with. So as they grow children end up having to dedicate much more of their brain power to re-configuring their ideas of the outside world. This can therefore create the illusion that time is running much more slowly for them than for adults with established routines. One explanation for the biochemical mechanism underpinning this theory is that new and interesting experiences help promote the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is known to not only help us learn to measure time but also to perceive its passing as being a little slower than when dopamine levels are low. As a consequence, once our natural reserves of dopamine begin to decline in our early 20’s it has the gradual affect that time begins to feel like it is passing ever more faster.
Who really knows with any certainty why life and time appear to gather such a pace with every passing year. Although I suspect, just like the tourist rocket flights to the planets and beyond we were all promised by the end of the 20th century after witnessing the moon landings, our understanding of the why this happens will remain an illusion for quite a lot longer than we expect.