Time doesn’t have to speed up as we age
A harrowing incident led me to experience time differently
I was in mid air, careening at full speed toward the forest floor, knowing that nothing I could do would prevent a very unwelcome full-body impact at the end.
Per Newton, gravity is consistent that way.
And why was I careening? Hubris.
I was on a hike around a lake in the shadow of Mount Hood in Oregon. It was a sun-dappled day and the mountain air felt great. I had been walking for two hours and hadn’t seen a single other person on the trail. The trail itself was a carpet of spongy pine needles.
I had walked this trail many times before, and would often have young trail joggers buzz past me: taut and muscular and pumping with vigor. And on this day, middle-aged me wondered “Why not?”
I am a jogger but had never been a trail runner. Still, how hard could it be?
And so just like that, I broke into a jog. Look at me! I’m a trail jogger now! I’m young and fit! These pine needles make the perfect track!
My self-congratulation was still in full swing when my foot caught a massive tree root that was inconveniently crossing the trail.
And then everything went into slow motion. I remember it clearly:
I’m in the air.
I’m sailing through the air.
I’ve tripped really a lot.
I am parallel with the ground.
I can see the ground approaching very quickly.
There is absolutely nothing I can do but wait for impact.
And then: CRUNCH.
(I lived. Actually, I was lucky, nothing terrible happened. I scraped my elbow pretty badly but it healed. I can no longer feel anything in my left knee but I’m getting used to it. I do forget things a lot, but I don’t think that is related.)
As I was hobbling back to the car, I kept going back to that moment in the air, where time slowed down. In reality it probably lasted 2 or 3 seconds, but in my mind it was more like 30 seconds.
That’s 10x reality.
Have you ever had a moment like that? I suppose we all have. You hear about it all the time, especially around sudden, traumatic events. In fact, as recounted in this New Yorker article, there is even a neuroscientist, Dr. David Eagleman, who has made a career out of studying how our perception of time changes based on sudden traumatic events.
Among other things, he hypothesizes that time slows down when we are having a new and unique experience. Like flying through the air on a mountain trail. “Time is this rubbery thing,” he suggests.
He goes on to explain that this same phenomenon is why time seems to speed up as we age. As children, so many of our experiences are new that they take more investigative brain power. When everything is new, you can’t help but put more focus into it. Eagleman suggests that this greater focus of our senses on new things translates into a perception that time is going slower.
Just watch a baby become transfixed by your wristwatch for 20 minutes and this makes perfect sense.
Alternatively, as we age, fewer life experiences are brand new, and thus our perception is that time is speeding up. Our brain abbreviates our many daily experiences, just like we abbreviate conversations in text and email. “On My Way” becomes “omw”. Eating toast for breakfast for the 3,000th time becomes “I don’t even remember eating breakfast but I’m not hungry so I guess I did?”
Experiment: Can I Slow Down Time?
For days, I kept going back to that moment in mid-air. Not to relive the pain, but out of curiosity.
Could I somehow bottle that slow-mo?
Would it be possible to live life in the fast lane (as I do) without having life pass by in a blur (as it does)?
As it happened, my 3-second Superman stunt was well timed, as it took place at the start of an extended sabbatical from work. It meant I had time on my hands to try some life experiments.
As detailed in this post, for instance, it was during sabbatical that I spent a whole day literally moving at 80% of my normal speed just to see what that was like.
What I learned from the fall, and subsequent reading, wasn’t just about a single day though. It was about how to slow down time in any day.
After various experiments, I found that it is in fact possible to slow down time without causing bodily harm. Here was my personal progression:
Time slows down when experiencing something new. Whether it is a car accident, careening through the air, or solving a 1,000 piece puzzle. I started to look for new experiences. Nothing dramatic, just tweaked my vacation routine. I found new places to hike, new activities to try (kayaking!), and even read some fiction (I’m normally strictly a non-fiction guy).
All of this genuinely helped. I found that a week during my sabbatical legitimately felt like a month. Which was fantastic. But what would happen when I was back in my normal rat race routine? It was clear that if I were to continue to slow down time when I was back at work, I’d have to get clever about finding new experiences in my day-to-day.
It was then that I remembered the raisin.
Dr. Jeffrey Brantley is a psychologist and mindfulness writer who has a devilishly simple exercise to help direct your mind into the slow lane. I have read some of his work, and always enjoy his style.
A favorite exercise he springs on his students is walking them through a pain-staking series of steps to eat a single raisin. Examine it. Feel it. Smell it. Savor it. It sounds silly, I know. (And it feels a bit silly if you try it). But if you force yourself to touch, smell, observe and finally taste a raisin, chances are you will experience something new in the midst of your otherwise daily routine. Take 20 minutes to eat a raisin and I guarantee time will slow down. (Your family will also look at you funny).
Still, with the time I had left in my break, I started looking for other “raisins” to savor. I noticed flowers, for instance. Really noticed them. Whoa.
I became slightly obssessed with bees:
And most of all, I noticed clouds. Obvious as that sounds. If I was racing through a day, or focused on my phone, I would periodically stop and just look up.
Clouds are simply amazing if you take a moment to examine them. I was like a baby with a wristwatch. I was seeing clouds for the first time:
Back to the Rat Race
I had the gift of time to try out some new techniques to slow down my high-velocity life. And in the end the key was simple and timeless. I’m happy to say that even with the sabbatical in the rear view mirror, the techniques still work. It’s like bringing a piece of a sabbatical back to my regular life. And I love it.
So my advice:
When things are moving faster than you’d like, go outside and look up at the clouds. Examine a flower. Investigate the craftsmanship of the shoe you’re wearing. Listen to every sound you can hear right this second. It may only take you a minute or two, but it will slow down your life.
I have no doubt that Eagleman’s hypothesis about time is true. It is only when we are experiencing new events that we can sense time slowing down.
Thus, the (harmless) way to slow down time is to intentionally focus on the seemingly mundane aspects all around you. Find something new in them. Rather than abbreviating them, spell them out.
To slow down our lives, we must make our everyday experiences feel new every day.
And in the end, that’s what I learned on my trip. (See what I did there?)