When every day is much the same our brains switch off, so keep seeking out new experiences
I am at the Edinburgh Festival, lengthening my life. Well, not literally. Whisky, dinners, wine, late nights, fish and chips eaten in the queues; I couldn’t confuse it with a health farm. But the days stretch out dazzlingly when each is stuffed with four or five original shows, whirling audiences from Greek myth to Colombian singing acrobats, dark comedy, the musician Richard Carpenter’s struggle with dwindling celebrity, or the history of mankind, all wrapped up in 60 minutes.
By late evening breakfast is a distant memory and even lunch is a long time ago. Not every extended hour is a welcome one. There are mawkish self-indulgent shows where, trapped in a small room, mad with boredom and irritation and unable to creep away, the minutes stubbornly refuse to end. Even those performances aren’t quite the sacrifice they seem. They only take up the time I might have spent scrolling through Twitter on the sofa.
I have been puzzling over the nature of time and how we experience it because many of the days I spent this summer, reading in the sun or hanging out with friends, felt pleasantly slow and enjoyable at the time but have left so little trace in my mind that it’s as if they scarcely happened at all. I don’t want my life to evaporate behind me or to drift past without my noticing it, and yet that’s increasingly how it seems. What makes time feel so elastic, and how can I have more of it?
The answer turns out to be: novelty and emotional intensity. Like so much of the body, the brain is designed to minimise the effort it has to make. It does that by recognising patterns. If everything it encounters is familiar, the same streets, the same office, the same friends, the same wine bar, then it hums along on autopilot. There’s no danger here to be wary of, and nothing out of the ordinary going on. It doesn’t bother to concentrate on what’s happening because it has seen all this before. And when the brain isn’t concentrating it isn’t registering all the information about what’s going on, which means that very little memory is being created or stored.
Present it with a new situation, though, whether that’s a job interview, a first meeting with someone who makes your heart leap, or the fact that you’re going hang gliding and are about to run off the edge of a cliff, and the brain switches on the neocortex and starts processing information rapidly. The more unusual or exciting the situation is, the more ferociously the brain concentrates and the more it takes in. A torrent of detail needs time to process, and it is that bombardment of new impressions which makes us feel that time itself has stretched out.
We’ve all experienced it. The first couple of days of a holiday, whether that’s a house in the Lake District or an Airbnb in Prague, are always intensely felt as we explore. By the morning of day three, though, the impact wears off as the brain detects patterns (here’s the pool, there’s the castle, it’s mozzarella for lunch again) and slackens off. The first day feels three times as long and full of marvels as the second, while the whole of the second week whips past at dismal speed.
This subjective experience is at its most intense when the brain perceives danger, as I did a few years ago when I was in a car crash I didn’t expect to survive. We were driving down the M40 at 2am in winter when we hit black ice on a bend at 60mph. From the skid, the swerves, the narrow misses, the hurtling up a snowy embankment to the final crash into a wood, I had time to feel terror, relief, elation, regret, resignation and dread.
The whole vivid episode felt as if my mind’s perception of time had slowed, but in his book The Brain the scientist David Eagleman explains that this too is an illusion. In a crisis a part of the brain called the amygdala takes over, creating memories of such detail and richness that we think the event itself must have lasted longer. Eagleman knows that we don’t actually slow down our perception of time in a crisis because he tested that by giving volunteers digital wrist displays and inducing terror by dropping them backwards into a net down a 150ft shaft. If they could slow time they could have read the rapidly changing displays. That proved impossible.
What all this tells us is that we have a great deal of choice over how fast or meaningfully we experience time. Routines and familiarity make our lives manageable and easy and pleasurable, but they erode the time we feel we have.
One man told me mournfully that, having just left a job he’d been in for almost two decades, he realised that all those years were already an unmemorable blur.
The principal reason that time gathers speed as we age is that our brains recognise so many situations that they literally shrug them off; been here, done that, no memory-making needed here.
All we need do to prevent that is surprise them and keep them on alert. So we might take five three-day breaks rather than a fortnight away, cycle to work instead of taking the bus, go to the concert of a performer we’ve never heard of, drop in to a gallery before work, have lunch with a colleague we hardly know, try rock-climbing or windsurfing or hill-walking or anything that might give us a refreshing, memorable adrenaline shock. We can’t determine the length of our lives, but we can choose how long they feel.