Wednesday, 1 January 2014

TURNING THE PAGE, with David Eagleman

Whether it is with a finger, an arrow or feeling the paper and not a virtual page, it is a new year, a new month and a new day.    Remember paper calendars that hung on the wall?  Some were from local businesses and presented as a gift at the end of the year.  They were usually advertisements for the business with the information about services or products and contact numbers.  Often accompanied by seasonal pictures or other illustrations some of these calendars are now in the category of collectibles as few remain on the market.  However, our propane delivery guy offered me one the other day which I graciously refused.  I wondered afterwards if I should have accepted it even out of mere curiosity.
Now we will get used to writing 2014 and it will go fast enough, just like last year.  I am not sure I ever got completely comfortable with 2013, not just the numbers but that phenomenon of the older we get the faster the days, weeks, months, and years, seem to fly by.   Why is that?  What accounts for the perception of ever-increasing speed?
David Eagleman, the neuro-scientist, has several explanations and the following illustration is a good one.  So-called “brain time,” as Eagleman labels it, is intrinsically subjective. “Try this exercise,” he suggests in a recent essay. “Put this book down and go look in a mirror. Now move your eyes back and forth, so that you’re looking at your left eye, then at your right eye, then at your left eye again. When your eyes shift from one position to the other, they take time to move and land on the other location. But here’s the kicker: you never see your eyes move.” Your brain has both condensed and accelerated the scene of eyes darting back and forth and recast it as a simple one: your eyes stare straight ahead. Where did the missing moments go?
The more details in the memory, the longer the time seems to go on. “This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re busy without regard for time. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information the brain records, and the more quickly time seems to pass.

“Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”

Ever hear someone say, “It’s been a long day and we know that days are accorded the same 24 hours and yet some seem longer than others?  People don’t like it very much when I say that I have news for them after that remark, that all days are the same length.   It has to do with the choices we make during any given day and what we might have done to either “slow it down” or “speed it up”  and whether we were learning something new or repeating something already well-known.

As we age, this process comes into play even more, making time seem to fly by much faster. This is because the more we age, the more often we come into contact with information our brains have already processed. This familiar information takes a shortcut through our brains, giving us the feeling that time is speeding up and going ever faster.

For young children, it’s easy to see how this would work in reverse, since the majority of information their brains are processing would be brand new, and require more time to process.  As we learn new things, it seems to take longer and now there’s an explanation beyond being obtuse!

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