The Buddha, it’s said, struggled mightily with three specters of adulthood—aging, sickness, and death—when reflections on mortality harshed his hedonistic life as a prince. His “intoxication with life entirely dropped away,” the stories say, when he reflected on its passing. Nothing cured his fatal unease until a memory from childhood arose unbidden: of stopping time by quietly sitting under a rose-apple tree.
In another version of this story, Marcel Proust discovered timelessness baked in a cookie. His potent memories of madeleines also came from childhood. As he recalled “the taste of tea and cake,” he writes, “at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory …. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.”
Neuroscientist David Eagleman also invokes a childhood memory in his discussion of time and aging, in the BBC video above. It is also a memory resonant with a remarkable physical detail: red brick pavement hurtling toward him as he falls from the roof of a house, experiencing what must have been a terrifying descent in slow motion. Quite a different experience from communing with trees and eating tea cakes, but maybe the content of a childhood memory is irrelevant to its temporal dimensions.
What we can all remember is that along with impatience and distractibility, childhood seems rich with carefree, absorptive languor (or moments of slow-motion panic). Psychologists have indeed shown in several studies that adults, especially those over the age of 40, perceive time as moving faster than it did when they were children. Why?
Because time is a “psychological construct,” says Eagleman, and can vary not just between ages and cultures, but also between individual consciousnesses. “It can be different in your head and my head,” he says. “Your brain is locked in silence and darkness inside the vault of your skull.” In order to “figure out what’s going on outside,” it’s got to do “a lot of editing tricks.” One trick is to convince us that we’re living in the moment, when the moment happened half a second in the past.
But we can notice that gap when we’re faced with novelty, because the brain has to work harder to process new information, and it creates thicker descriptions in the memory. All of this additional processing, Eagleman says, seems to take more time, so we perceive new experiences as happening in a kind of slow motion (or remember them that way). That includes so many experiences in our childhood as well as emergency situations in which we have to navigate a challenging new reality very quickly.
As writer Charles Bukowski once said, “as you live many years, things take on a repeat…. You keep seeing the same thing over and over again.” The brain can coast on familiarity and expend little energy generating perception. We retain fewer detailed memories of recent events, and they seem to have flown by us. The remedy, says Eagleman, is to seek novelty. (You thought he was going to say “mindfulness”?) Wear your watch on a different wrist, change the way you brush your teeth….
Mundane examples, but the point remains: we need new and varied experiences to slow our sense of time. Routine lack of novelty in adulthood may be the primary reason that “our early years,” write psychologists James Broadway and Brittaney Sandoval write at Scientific American,“tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer.”
They can also, for that reason, seem all the sweeter. But nostalgia, however tempting, can’t take the place of going new places, meeting new people, reading new books, hearing new music, seeing new films, and so on and so forth—and thereby effectively slowing down time.