In case you’re wondering what happened to 2009 — personally, I misplaced December, and have some real doubts about several weeks in March and August — maybe you were indeed having fun. Or having too much caffeine. According to an article seductively headlined “Where Did The Time Go? Do Not Ask The Brain” in the New York Times our perception of time can be linked to good times or bad, and the nature of events we peg time’s passage to affects whether it flew like the wind or dragged like a wet mattress. Science Times writer Benedict Carey assembles enough esoteric theories, along with the down-home speculations, to make a few moments vanish while reading.
That most alarming New Year’s morning question — “Uh-oh, what did I do last night?” — can seem benign compared with those that may come later, like “Uh, what exactly did I do with the last year?”
Or, “Hold on — did a decade just go by?”
It did. Somewhere between trigonometry and colonoscopy, someone must have hit the fast-forward button. Time may march, or ebb, or sift, or creep, but in early January it feels as if it has bolted like an angry dinner guest, leaving conversations unfinished, relationships still stuck, bad habits unbroken, goals unachieved.
I think for many people, we think about our goals, and if nothing much has happened with those then suddenly it seems like it was just yesterday that we set them,” said Gal Zauberman, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business.
Studies of what makes time fly, or seem to, come up with opposite views: too many events that you’re pegging the past 30 days to might telescope them into 20 days. Or maybe your brain does have some control over your perception of time. You didn’t get that project finished on deadline? Well, the day just zoomed by.
In earlier work, researchers found a similar dynamic at work in people’s judgment of intervals that last only moments. Relatively infrequent stimuli, like flashes or tones, tend to increase the speed of the brain’s internal pacemaker.
On an obvious level, these kinds of findings offer an explanation for why other people’s children seem to grow up so much faster than one’s own. Involved parents are all too well aware of every hiccup, split lip and first step in their own children; whereas, seeing a cousin’s child once every few years, without intervening memories, telescopes the time.
On another level, the research suggests that the brain has more control over its own perception of passing time than people may know. For example, many people have the defeated sense that it was just yesterday that they made last year’s resolutions; the year snapped shut, and they didn’t start writing that novel or attend even one Pilates class. But it is precisely because they didn’t act on their plan that the time seemed to have flown away.
By contrast, the new research suggests, focusing instead on goals or challenges that were in fact engaged during the year — whether or not they were labeled as “resolutions” — gives the brain the opportunity to fill out the past year with memories, and perceived time.
My father, who spent his entire life in academia, used to speak of time as “the element that doesn’t exist.” Maybe he was right after all. Maybe that’s what happened to December.