Why Does Childhood Feel so Long While Adulthood Flies By?

That’s a pretty good question.   I’ve often thought about it and nostalgically looked back on my early, care free years with a jealousness for the summers that lasted forever. And yet, not so long ago, I remember a time when time seemed to stand still.  Jessica and I spent a summer in Kenya, which although only 2 and a half months, it
felt like two years.  Time was completely different than here. There was no demanding emails, “work” in our sense (although we were busy), and best of all–no electricity. When the sun went down, we just sat around and talked or went to bed.

So what makes the difference, when our day to day life is so busy and a year in my life now seems to pass as if it were just a week whereas I know for my kids, a year is an unimaginably long time? I just happened to run across some information that shed some profound light on this question, and may help us all to recapture at least in small part, that extension of time.

In reading the book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer provides us with extensive insights into how our minds work and how memories play a part in our concept of time.

Foer refers to a 1962 experiment where Michel Siffre, a French chronobiologist (someone who studies the relationship between time and living organisms) performed a test where he tried to live “beyond time.”  He spent two months living in total isolation in a cave, without access to a clock, calendar, or sun.  Sleeping and eating only when his body told him to, he sought to discover how the natural rythems of human life would be affected without time.  Basically, he had lights, food, water and a journal.

Quickly Siffre’s memory deteriorated and his days melded into an indistinguishable jumble of guesses as to the time. With no one to talk to, nothing to do, there was nothing to make an impression on his memory.  There were no events to mark the passing of the time. At some point, Siffre stopped being able to remember what happened just the previous day.  Soon after, his sleep patterns degenerated.  Some days he was up for thirty-six hours straight, other days for just eight, with no way of determining the difference.

When Siffre’s colleagues called down to him on the scheduled day his experiment was scheduled to end, September 14, it was only August 20 in his journal.  He thought only a month had passed!

Foer makes the point—and I agree—that monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.

If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear.  That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories.  Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Life seems to speed up as we get older because live gets less memorable as we get older.

In 1890, William James’ book Principles of Psychology discussed the shortening and extending of psychological time:

In youth we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day.  Apprehension is vivid, retentiveness strong, and our recollections of that time, like those of a time spent in rapid and interesting travel, are of something intricate, multitudinous and long-drawn-out.  But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to countless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.

The view out my plane window

As I write this, I’m on another adventure, visiting the Land of the Midnight Sun—Alaska.  For work, I headed up to Badami Alaska, near Pruhdoe Bay, up on the Arctic Ocean.  We also stopped by Barrow, AK briefly.  To me this trip illustrates the whole idea of psychological time perfectly.  Everything on the trip was noteworthy and full of first time experiences for me. It was my first time above the Arctic Circle, first time on frozen tundra, in -58 degree weather, to the Arctic Ocean, driving on an ice road, seeing caribou, having a day without the sun coming up, and on and on. Needless to say I was excited and there were lots of interesting things to experience.

I was continually amazed at how different their world was compared mine and couldn’t get enough of the stories that everyone else shared.  In contrast, for many who had been working up there for years, it was just another day, “One day down in my two week shift.”

Another recent experience was bowling with Mason.  He couldn’t get enough of the little 5 second videos of an animated ball and pin interacting after everyone’s turn.  He was more interested in that then in the actual game.  Small things that most of us don’t even notice anymore are part of the reason that a child’s time frame extends far longer than our own.

As I consider the implications that these insights have on me as an adult—specifically as a parent—I consider the aspects of my life that are in the doldrums and those that excite me and ultimately, keep my time extending. Planning, anticipating, and loving adventures are huge on my list of ways to stretch time out and make your life more memorable. I also loving meeting new people, overcoming challenges, and watching my kids discover new aspects of the world for the first time.  Their wonder rubs off on me, and hopefully in the mix, makes my life more memorable and extends my minutes a little longer.  Here’s to getting out of the cave and making life into one adventure after another, even if it is just as simple as bowling.



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