How Mindfulness Shifts Our Perception of Time
The passage of time seems to speed up as we get older—but research finds this unnerving phenomenon may be allayed by learning to more attentively savor all the familiar details of our lives.
BY SHARON BEGLEY
Imagine a woman, well into her seventh decade of life but still mentally sharp, taking her grandson on his first walk along the beloved beach where she has lived for years. The little boy hears the roar of the surf, the screech of seagulls; he sees sand and sand castles, families under beach umbrellas, toddlers scampering away from the incoming tide, a carpet of tiny shells and garlands of shiny brown seaweed; he smells the briny, metallic air. To him, many things happened. The grandmother, in contrast, experiences these details much less distinctly. This means that for her, just one thing happened: another beach walk.
The difference between the grandmother’s and the boy’s subjective experiences of the identical physical experience offers a tantalizing clue to something that explorers of the human condition, from novelists to psychologists, have puzzled over: why our sense of the passage of time speeds up as we age. You’ve almost certainly experienced it. How can I have been working here for 10 years, when it feels like employee orientation was only yesterday? you ask. Where did the summer go? you wonder. And in your darker moments, Where did my life go? You don’t need to be as old as our beach-walking grandmother to feel this; the perception that time is accelerating creeps in well before middle age....
The Melting-Pot of Memory
The new idea is this. As we get older, we “chunk” the experiences we’ve had into broad categories, bundling individual moments into larger, more generic groups in our minds. The grandson’s beach walk, in his memory, consisted of dozens of vivid, individual experiences. To the grandmother, these experiences are so familiar that they get filed as a single one: “beach walk.”
Our perception of how quickly time passes varies according
to numerous factors, some as changeable as emotion.
If we focus on being fully aware in the moment, rather than letting it
slip by mindlessly, we can better apprehend its uniqueness and significance.
...If we focus on being fully present and aware, rather than letting the moment slip by mindlessly, lost in thought or swept away in a story as in a dream, we can better apprehend its uniqueness and keep it from being obliterated by chunking—more like the grandson’s beach walk, rather than the grandmother’s.
“Better perception—>better encoding—>better working memory—>better
long-term memory (for facts and episodes)—>fuller embodied retrieval.”
When we get into the habit of paying attention nonjudgmentally—remaining curious about the experiences and people in our lives, no matter how familiar they get—we improve our working memory, which may in turn aid our ability to store and recall long-term memories of events and information.
“The logic is this: Improved attention leads to improved encoding into working memory,” Jha explains. “With higher-integrity working-memory representations for content, the better the chances for successful consolidation into long-term memory and the better the chances of successful learning and retrieval of information,...”