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THOMPSON: Our perception of the passage of time

December 23, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Here it is just over a week before we let go of one year and embrace another. So, as I thought about my closing column for the year…I considered the concept of time.

Who hasn’t said - or at least thought - that when they were a kid, summer lasted forever? But as an adult, somehow summers seem to pass more quickly. Blame it on physics…that subject in high school and university that most of us feared, some of us survived and very few of us excelled.

You see, physics explains how our brains trick us…making it true that time seems to pass more quickly as we age. It works like this. There is the time we can measure accurately…exactly 60 seconds in every minute, 60 minutes in every hour and 24 hours in every day. That is clock time…and if you’re 15 minutes late it doesn’t matter where on earth you are…you’re 15 minutes late.

But there is the other time…mind time. And mind time varies with each and every one of us. Oh, our mind times are similar…hence that overall impression that summers were once longer when we were ten years old. But mind time is dependent on how we perceive stimuli.

Relax, I’m not going to turn this into a physics lesson. Well, not entirely. Mind time is a function of how many mental images we encounter…how our brains absorb and organize those impressions…and the general health of our brains as we age.

Okay, here’s a whole bunch of physics in one simple explanation…I hope. As we age, the speed of the mental images we perceive - what we see, hear, feel and smell - slows because some of our abilities are less acute and the paths that neurones travel in the brain aren’t as clear. It’s an inversely proportional relationship…and the result is a sense that time goes by faster when we’re older.

Something called saccadic eye movement plays a big role, as well. Saccades are milli-second eye movements and between those brief moments when our eyes fix on something…neurones do their work…and the brain receives and processes that data. Of course, we’re unaware of the complexity of this process...it simply happens without our efforts.

When we’re young - babies and toddlers - the times when our eyes fix on something are shorter. So, when we’re young and almost everything is new…time actually seems to pass more slowly. When we’re older what we observe slows…but our perception of time goes faster. This physics stuff is amazing.

Another fact…those saccadic eye movements can slow and overlap when we’re tired…and give us mixed signals. A brain in need of sleep and rejuvenation can’t see and process information at the same time…we reason and act more slowly.

I never hired a true “workaholic” because these types try to “work” through problems regardless of how tired they might be. The best decisions - all things equal - come when we’re rested and fresh. Generally, fatigue is a bigger issue as we age, as well, so decisions eventually become a little slower for all of us.

Of course, when I think about it…all of the physics and scientific realities jibe with the common-sense advice of those who live up into their 90s. I remember my mother’s - 95 years young - sage advice…”Stay active…physically and mentally.”

And I don’t think it’s my imagination but nearly everyone who looks younger than their chronological years…you know…80 year olds who look 65…leads an active, positive life embracing and experiencing new things.

The interrelationships of the processes and systems within our bodies are nothing short of marvellous. Hey, I’m inspiring myself for the New Year!

Indeed, I wish for you and myself, a 2020 that brings good health, happiness and prosperity…and that we embrace new experiences and truly live life to the fullest. Maybe then our Summers, Falls, Winters and Springs might at least seem to last a bit longer.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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