In the summer,
I was in the mountains with my family. In retrospect, it was a very long week, full of mountain air, mushroom picking, the fire crackling in the stove... and then the magic moment when, after a long, steep climb, we reached a high plateau. Before us lay a black lake in absolute tranquillity. No breeze disturbed the air. A few fish hunting for insects caused ripples on the water, but otherwise there was nothing to be heard. That was months ago. But while that alpine experience takes up a lot of room in my memory, the weeks since have been forgotten. I was back to everyday life – and how the time flies.
There’s a good reason for this, according to Marc Wittmann, time researcher at the Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany. “The brain doesn’t form memories from monotony. If I do the same thing week after week, going to work every morning, watching TV in the evening, and then I look back on the year, time will have passed me by quickly. Monotony leads to a shortening of the time experienced,” he explains.
This is a phenomenon that every adult from Alaska to New Zealand knows. In contrast, children and young people still live with an overabundance of time: every day they see, hear, taste and feel new things that leave a lasting and colourful impression in their minds. Memories from our early years of life seem to stretch back infinitely.
Over the years and with a growing understanding, profound experiences inevitably become rarer: while a first kiss will never be forgotten, who remembers the thousandth goodnight kiss in a long relationship? And the rarer the highlights become, the faster the carousel of time turns. If it’s any consolation, Wittmann has found that a plateau is reached at the age of 60: “From then on, there‘s no more slowing down, but no more acceleration either,” he says.
Breaking the routine
So how do we stop time racing? By having a varied life, of course. New events allow memories to ourish, extending time – even when it’s no longer possible to achieve the same sense of time as a child or teenager. “In the four years between 12 and 16, for example, a lot of developmental psychology takes place that cannot be experienced between the ages of 42 and 46,” says Wittmann.
Despite all this, the passage of time is decelerated when we break our routines. This can be with small things: talking to a stranger on the street, riding an unknown bus route in a full circle, taking a different route to the shops. Maybe you always wanted to learn a new language, a musical instrument, a craft? So do it!
Travel also enriches our experiences. This doesn’t need to be a trip around the world – a guided tour around your own city or a visit to an unusual event will provide new memories.
Feelings in particular have a long-lasting effect: they become etched into the brain, in turn affecting our perception of time. Those who get involved in projects, who help and participate in other people’s lives – and let others participate in their own – are rewarded with intense moments that are remembered for a long time.
Here and now
But besides the dullness of daily routine, Wittmann also attri- butes a portion of blame to our modern goal-driven culture: “In the West especially, we are much too focused on striving to achieve targets in the future.” Constantly driven by goals such as security, prosperity and careers, we’ve forgotten how to live in the present. And our inability to do so accelerates time tremendously.
After all, if your head is always somewhere else, you won’t appreciate what’s happening here and now: the taste of your food, the golden rays of sunlight on your skin, the emotions of someone sitting next to you – or even your own feelings. Without mindfulness, however, the brain can’t form memories – and time shrinks once again. “Sensory experiences that are mindfully lived, on the other hand, result in time expansion,” he explains.
So try to set aside time to tune into the present every day: close your eyes, pay attention to your breath, and hear, feel, taste, live in the moment. Or simply, hang out with a young child – then you can rediscover the world all over again.