Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Time is Relative

Another thing I like about traveling is how it seems to alter my sense of time.  You know the feeling.  You go on a week's trip, and after only a couple of days it feels as if you've lived two lifetimes.  You can often be heard to exclaim, "Wow, it feels as if I've been away forever!"

In the meantime, the folks back home have experienced the same passage of time as if it occurred in the blink of an eye.  They will often remark upon hearing that you've just returned from a long trip, "Were you away? I didn't notice."

This strange alteration of sense of time is reminiscent of our changing perception of it throughout our lifetimes.  Remember when summer vacation seemed to last a really looonnngg time?  On that first day out of school, the summer stretched out before you, and the next school year was in the very distant future.  Each day of the summer passed leisurely--almost at a snail's pace.  From the first moment your feet hit the floor until your head flopped exhausted onto your pillow in the evening, your days seemed full and packed with activity.  As we reach early adulthood, time begins to speed up, and those summer vacations are definitely not as long as they once seemed to be.  Advance forward to middle age, and the days flash by like cars speeding past on the Autobahn.  As each year goes by, we marvel at how much shorter they seem to be.

I understand from reading about this phenomenon that most people attribute it to the fact that as we age, time units (such as a year) represent smaller and smaller fractions of our lifespan.  For a two-year old, one year is half of a lifetime.  For a 90-year old...well, you get the picture.  However, time perception researchers have other hypotheses, some relating to changes in brain chemistry as we age or to the effect of visual stimuli (marking time intervals).  I'm sure there are some interesting experiments going on in this field....

So back to the effect of travel on time perception.  I guess that the perceived slowing down of time while away from home has to do with being jostled out of your routine and exposed to new experiences.  You are in new and unknown surroundings, usually doing something different from what you would do at home, meeting new people, and probably learning a lot of new things (or at least being exposed to new information and experiences).  Novelty is also a feature of early life when we are constantly learning new things.  One wonders, then, if it is the new experiences that actually influence our sense of time, rather than the fraction of our lifespan each time unit represents?  Perhaps new experiences alter our brain chemistry and a side effect is altered time perception? 

In any case, travel might be a means to slow down time.  Time may not actually be changing--just your perception of it.  But perception is reality, as they say.

It's hard to know, though, if this phenomenon would persist if you travel frequently.  I imagine not, since the routine of travel would come to be as monotonous as the routine of daily life stuck in one location.  I was thinking about this while watching the recent movie, "Up in the Air", starring George Clooney as a guy who travels 320 days a year firing people for corporate executives too wimpy to do it themselves.  He has the airport, hotel, and restaurant routines down pat.  He also gives motivational talks--or rather the same talk, called "Unpacking Your Backpack", over and over.  His goal is to reach 10 million frequent flyer miles.  This is not the type of travel that slows time.

By the same reasoning, one should be able to slow time down by simply altering daily activities to include something new and different.  Unfortunately, when we need this time dilatation the most (old age) is when we have the least energy and inclination to do new things.  We tend to develop and cling to routines as we age.  They seem familiar, safe, and, most of all, require little brain-power to accomplish (an important consideration for those of us over a certain age).  Retired people have the most flexibility to incorporate new activities or experiences because they are freed from the routine of a regular job that involves repetitive tasks carried out at specific times. But all retirees seem to do is play golf!

There must be an intermediate mix of home and travel (or new activities) that yields an optimum (i.e., slowed down) time perception.  I'm not sure what this ratio is, but will let you know when I figure it out.

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