“I can’t stand to think my life is going by so fast and I’m not really living it.”“Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters.”
(Robert Cohn and Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway)
The First Law of Temporal Dynamics - Contraction
I might look healthy, but according to my calculations, I don't have much time left - a couple of years at most and it is going fast.
Don’t worry, this is not some “Last Lecture.” Or maybe it is, for all of us. We are all in the same boat: we are all dying and we all have less time than the calendar of chronological years suggests. If you are a reader of this blog, you probably already feel this. Chronologically I'm only half done, but experientially the story is different.
Question: Do you feel that time is accelerating? That hours are growing shorter and that each year flies more quickly than the last? Time is the most valuable commodity we have as humans, and it is passing through our hands like so many grains of sand. I want do something about that: how can we manage the actual experience of time?
Eating right and exercising helps a little but solves the wrong problem. In a exponentially accelerating scale, tacking on a few integers does not amount to much in the grand scheme of things, particularly when adding a few years seems to involve a life of asceticism.
Consider another paradigm of time based on our actual experiences – “experiential time.” I have now asked nearly 100 people the following question, "Think back: when you were 8 years old, how long did summer last?" The answer, nearly ubiquitous, is, "forever." Let's scale back "forever" and instead assume that from an experiential standpoint a summer in youth, say, as an 8 year old, feels about the same as a whole year as a 20-something. And that same year as a 20-something starts to feel awfully similar to a decade in middle age.
If you plot experiential time vs. chronological time, a frightening graph appears. The area under the curve represents a simple measure of “life” and the math is not promising. Here's a simple graph showing this decay in experiential time with markers at age 8, 20, and 50. We've been trying to measure the "area under the curve" with a yardstick of chronology - it doesn't' work and leads to huge errors in our math.
It gets worse if you plot experiential time linearly keeping the area under the curve (life) constant. Since "experiential time" is merely the area under the curve, we must now take the integral of the equation or simply readjust the x axis according to the logarithmic scale we just shared to figure our "true age" or "life left." When you plot time as we experience it cognitively, a 44 year old with a life expectancy of 86 is not “half done” – rather from an experiential standpoint life is more than 92% over!
The First Law of Temporal Dynamics: The Law of Contraction
All other factors being held constant, the conduit for the flow of time, as processed through the constraints of cognition, will contract, resulting in the subsequent perception of the acceleration of time.
I'll admit it - this terrifies me. Is anyone else terrified? You should be. Life isn't just half over. We don't have 50 or 40 years in front of us to do all of those bucket list things - NO, life is in its final chords, the fat lady is singing, and we are, practically speaking, nearly dead.
The good news, even great news, is that it doesn't have to be this way - if we accept that time is not linear, that the brain processes time according to a different set of rules, then we can accept the possibility that we can alter the perception of time as processed by the brain, and hence really live "longer."
It is perhaps a cliched notion that "if you cannot add more years to your life, add more life to your years" but the reality of our experiences and the findings of modern neuroscience provide tools and ideas to make this happen.
Let me introduce the first metaphor for the new physics of time - We've all heard time described as a "river" flowing infinitely forward, and infinitely backward - this is a good place to start. To improve the metaphor, consider our experiences with time as if the brain is a "garden hose" through which time flows. What happens when you constrict a fixed flow of water through a garden hose? According the physics principle of (V) = (Q)/(A) the velocity (V) of a flow is indirectly proportional to the cross sectional area of the conduit (A) assuming a fixed flow (Q). This, I believe, perfectly describes what is happening to most of us - we are creating lives that accidentally constrict the passageway for the flow of time and in so doing cause it to accelerate.
Let me demonstrate through the life and times of an 8 year old and his or her garden hose or conduit for time. The two axes that determine the speed of water through a hose are width and height or, breadth and depth.
Specifically in this case, cross section of the hose is driven by the breadth and depth. The breadth we are talking about is breadth of experience. For an 8 year old, the whole world is NEW. There is so much to find joy in, skipping rocks, running pel-mel into a lake or ocean, fireworks, sledding, it is all new. 8 year olds also have a "depth" of experience emotionally, not only do they experience the joy of love, of summer nights, and discovering new things, they also skin their knees, get hit by baseballs, find themselves alone or lost or both, get into fights and they cry. A lot.
Now lets consider the experience of a 20 year old. Now they've declared a major and are honing in on their future career. They've experienced a lot, so new experiences, while still common are not an everyday thing like an 8 year old. They've also acquired a taste for comfort. They've learned to avoid those horrible experiences where they are picked last for the team, mocked for being odd, or rejected for their interests by aligning with a more homogeneous group of friends. Their hose, their conduit for time has narrowed. As their brain matures, their "set point" for the processing of time becomes fixed which is why I consider the set point for the notion of "1 year" fixed here at age 20, not at age 8.
Fast forward and now consider the average middle aged office worker. Routine rules the day - same wake up time, same commute, same co-workers, same type of problems in the same department. Even when they go on vacation, they go to the same place. The middle aged professional also has the money to eliminate the pains and aches of life. The modern conveniences of air conditioning, heat, Advil, and TV, have created a platinum sweater around him or her. This muffling gauze of modernity necessarily constrains the highs as well as the lows, like wearing earplugs for the sometimes jarring music of life. This narrow existence and comfortable life further constricts the breadth and depth of the temporal conduit, and by middle age, time races by, flowing in an artificially pressurized valve, much like arteriosclerosis.
The middle aged man or woman feels safe, they are comfortable.. And they are, as the saying goes, "killing time" as it flies by.
The antidote here is quite simple - in order to expand the conduit of time and hence slow it down you have to increase the breadth and depth of your experiences - live more like an 8 year old, or as Hemingway writes, live life like a bullfighter. Now to some extent many adults sense this - they sense life is passing them by and so they intuitively seek out new opportunities to expand the breadth of their experience. They decide to take classes, learn a new language, pick up an instrument, resume singing lessons, take up a sport - and to some extent it works - these expand the breadth of experience.
BUT, these experiences only expand their lives in one dimensionsand hence their hose of time is flat, there's no depth to those new experiences. Why? For the simple reason that there is no risk in those activities, no fear of failure. An unfortunate truth of life is that without risk of failure, without the possibility or actuality of suffering, then you cannot have depth. So, to conclude this first metaphor, in order to unconstrict the garden hose, you have to take on risk in those new experiences. If you take up piano, sign up for a recital, if you take up singing, perform on stage, if you take up running, enter a race. Also, when you go on vacation, never go to the same place twice.
So, how to know if you are 'doing it right?" If something you are pursuing doesn't carry the risk of real tears upon failure, if it doesn't carry that kind of emotional commitment, then you aren't "living all the way up" and you will not be able to slow time to that of an 8 year old, or a bullfighter.
But, if you expand your set of experiences, and allow the pendulum of emotions to re-enter your life, take chances, get emotionally vested, then you can widen your hose of life and slow time. That is really living.
I want my graph to expand and accordion out like the graph below. I'm willing to take on the risks and failures and suffering required. Time to enter the bullring...
The Second Law of Temporal Dynamics: The Law of Inversion
The experience of time in the present is often inversely proportional to the experience of time as remembered in the past (experiential time). Remembered time governs the overall experience of time.