We often complain how time flies. Implicit in this is a feeling that we are not able to make the most of what is a limited lifespan. This blog highlights research which explains why that happens and what we can do to ‘slow down’ time and make the most of our lives. The author talks about a podcast on how we perceive time by Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman, someone who remembers a near death experience more vividly than anything else and decided to study why that may be.

“While getting his PhD at Stanford, Eagleman interviewed people who similarly experienced time slowing down during a tense situation: 1) a police officer in a shootout; 2) a person in a motorcycle accident; 3) a mother seeing her child fall in a lake; 4) a victim of a mugging.

“These reports made it seem possible to me that the brain has a capacity to operate at a higher frame rate, which is how filming slow motion in the movies works,” Eagleman explains on his podcast. “You capture information at a higher frame rate and then you play it back at normal speed. But what if there was another possibility here? What if, for example, it’s a trick of memory such that you’re laying down denser memories and when you read it back out, your brain’s only conclusion is, ‘well, if I have that much memory, that must correspond to five seconds when in fact it only lasted one second’.”

The author cites the example of our COVID experience:

“Think back to your shelter-at-home routines in 2020 and 2021. In the actual moment, the monotonous daily routine felt like a total drag.

However, those years were a total blur when looking back. Why? Because retrospectively, we weren’t laying down “dense” memories. Every WFH day blended into the next WFH day. Every WFH week blended into the next WFH week. There were few new or novel memories created.

New or novel memories — aka “denser memories” — stretch the feeling of time because they recruit more areas of our brain.”

He refers to the two parts of our brain which are responsible for primary memories (more routine) and secondary memories (novel or dense memories).

“The amygdala is the part of the brain that activates the fight-or-flight response in dangerous situations…“[In] emergency situations, your amygdala commandeers the rest of the brain and makes you attend to what’s happening [vision, audio, feelings, memory],” says Eagleman. “When the amygdala is involved, memories are laid down on a secondary memory system.”

The primary memory system — which sorts through routine everyday activities — is handled by our hippocampus. But most everyday activities are very unmemorable. It’s this secondary memory system that creates long-lasting memories.”

He then shares an excerpt from the podcast which drives the point home:

““We all have the impression that a childhood summer seemed to last forever, but when you’re older, the summers are here and then they’re gone and years zip by and decades, zip by. Well, now you know why. It’s because the job of the brain is to build an internal model of the world out there. Your brain is locked in silence and darkness inside your skull, and all it is trying to do is understand the structures of the world so it can operate in it better. And whenever it encounters a surprise, it writes that down and it makes changes to your circuitry.

But as you go through life and your brain develops better models of the world, less and less carries much surprise. This is why you lay down fewer memories as you age. It’s because you’ve seen that situation before and you’ve met that personality before and you’ve done that job before. The memories that you lay down are much thinner, they’re more impoverished. But in contrast, when you’re in your childhood, everything is new. And so the richness of your memories gives you the impression of increased duration.

When you are looking back at the end of a childhood summer, it seems to have lasted for such a long time because everything was new. But when you’re looking back at the end of an adult summer, it seems to have disappeared rapidly because you haven’t written much down in your memory. So I don’t recommend emergency situations, but it sure does make you operate like you’re a child again. So here is the take-home lesson. We have to seek novelty because this is what lays down new memories in the brain.”

Eagleman concludes his podcast episode by explaining practical things he does to lay down denser memories:

“One thing I do every day is drive home a different route from work. It’s not that hard and it doesn’t take much longer, but it allows me to see things in a fresh way. Most of us have had the experience that when you drive to work for the first time, it seems to take a really long time, but after that, it shrinks. And it’s because you’re becoming an automatized zombie and you’re just running this program unconsciously of driving to work. You’re not noticing new things anymore. And another thing I try to do is rearrange my office every month or so. It’s really easy. You just push your desk over to the other side. You maybe swap the artwork on the walls, things like that. These are easy things to do. One thing that I recommend is tonight brush your teeth with your other hand.

It’s not that hard to do, but it will make you seem as though you are extending your time a bit because you’re forcing your brain off its hamster wheel of doing things a particular way every day. And by the way, if you wear a watch or a Fitbit, switch it to the other hand so that when you are looking at it, it’s not just an automatic thing, but it’s something you have to put a little bit of attention towards. So all these kinds of things — any version of this — it’s the best thing that you can do to perceptually extend your life.”

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