“Time is This Rubbery Thing”- David Eagleman
I‘ve been thinking a lot about my life experiences now that I’m on the other side of 25, I realize that time is a rubbery thing. I always get that how did that happen feeling when I look at childhood photos like these. Glimpses of my precocious tomboy self seem far removed from who I am now, but the only thing that separates us? The experiences passing through all these years. Healthy doses of bad, and a good amount of great.
As I got to thinking, I realized that although this time warp feeling will probably always exist to some degree, being abroad stretches out my months and years so much, slowing down time. It feels like lifetimes packed into such a small span of time. Well, it turns out there’s scientific evidence to back this notion of not actually making your life longer but making it seem longer. And there’s good news, too. You don’t have to sell it all to see the world or travel constantly to add depth, length, and quality to your life.
So, why is it exactly that our sense of time seems to speed up as we age?
As it turns out there’s many reasons as to why time feels like it flies away from us as we get older. Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist from Baylor College of Medicine, has detailed the inner workings of the brain when it comes to a thing we call retrospective time. According to his research, our days slip away the fastest when we’re doing things that challenge us least; time flies when we get caught up in a routine of watching the clock, or melting hours away on auto pilot. Novelty also plays a huge part in how we look back on our time, on the life we’ve lived. When routine and the expected take over our days, time shrinks and shrivels in retrospect. Think about your youth: it was an overload of new experiences, right? There were so many firsts to go through, and so many glorious unchartered territories to discover. This is why our elementary school and middle school summers seemed to last an eternity, but now summers are gone in the blink of an eye. As a kid, there’s so much going on and so many new things to process and take in. It’s the most jam-packed time in life for the brain to really stretch itself out. The idea that new things and experiences create real markers in our mind makes total sense! Novelty in a multitude of forms gives our brains more work to process, more footage to record, more bookmarks in our book, thus elongating how we perceive time when we look back. Now think about your everyday routines. Sitting in traffic, commuting on the subway. Even though you might spend so much time doing these things everyday, there’s nothing stimulating actually happening, so the brain almost fast forwards through those experiences because there’s nothing interesting to process and hold onto. In fact, living a very repetitious life can have a unpleasant mixture and dilemma of both feelings. In the moment of boredom, time couldn’t move slower, but when you look back there’s nothing memorable to recall. Now think about your life. How do you want your time to tick by?
So, what’s the trick?
There are things we can do to enrich the time we do have and to create more depth to our days and years. Dr. Eagleman suggests the following brain exercises to add more oomph to those memories of ours.
- Keep learning. One of the best ways to experience “newness” and to slow down time is to constantly take in new information and educate yourself. Learn a new language, take a dance class, try cooking. Whatever! Just keep the new information coming.
- Be mindful. Actively noticing new things is as simple as it gets. The more aware we are of what we’re doing (less zoning out and more tuning in), the more time can be on our side. It’s hard these days with the myriad distractions out there to really be in the moment. Notice the details you’d otherwise overlook and commit yourself to just being there. Praying, meditating and paying attention to your breathing counts, too.
- Visit new places. A brand new environment will send your brain into overdrive processing new sounds, smells, people, colors etc; While your brain is interpreting all this and working hard to process, you can enjoy the benefits of lengthened retrospective time. This doesn’t mean you have to leave the country! Explore and find new environments within your own city. Rediscover your hometown. There’s always something new waiting to be uncovered.
- Meet new people. It takes a lot of energy to meet a new person, to discover if you’ll be friends or not, to see what you have in common, and to put forth your personality. It’s the perfect exercise for your brain during this complex (and fun) task. Join groups via Meetup.com or Couchsurfing.com for a good social stretch.
- Do new things and seek out new firsts. Doing things for the first time means you have to pay extra attention as a wealth of new information and sensations comes flooding into your brain. Possibilities are endless and it can be as simple as taking a new route to work or taking up pilates. Keep your brain guessing!
In my personal experience
2011 feels like forever ago. So much has happened in between graduating college and ending up in Malaysia that my head spins when I really think about it. For example: last year, days in Indonesia seemed to go on forever because the move in and of itself was the biggest challenge I’ve ever taken on. As a young woman trying to find myself, as a traveler and just as a human being in general, that experience was completely exotic and exhausting at first. Almost everyday I had to stretch beyond the bounds of my comfort in order to adapt to new situations in a foreign place. I believe whole heartedly that naturally built into the expat experience is a time warp of sorts. Some days were (and still are) unfamiliar, new and confronting. By living within the Asian culture, I’m on a road that hasn’t been paved before and my brain is constantly guessing. My concept of time reflects this, because in Indonesia it felt as if I was there for a lifetime when really it was only a small year. Fast forward eight months later to Malaysia and time has moved noticeably quicker. The reason for that? More things are familiar here, my brain doesn’t have to work as hard because life closely resembles the States – and there you go – time picks up the pace.
“Shake up your neural circuits”
As an expat, traveling to new places, making new friends in each new city and settling into a foreign country keeps the brain active. This in itself makes time slow down because I’m having to engage mentally whether I feel like it or not. It sounds obvious, but life gets in the way and we can get caught up in routine more than we want or know. I never wanted to go through life blindly and I don’t want my memories to slip away from me. For the time being, I’m loving living in foreign countries because it’s one way to not only engage my mind, but to make significant markers in time. My months stand out, my memories are clearer than ever and time isn’t so blurry.
I don’t feel 27 – whatever that’s supposed to feel like. Life is good and I’m more than content with what I’ve done so far with my time on earth. I want to dodge the ultimate pangs of regret on my deathbed. I want to make the most of each day, and I certainly don’t want monotony stealing my chance at a date with novelty.