Fast Time and the Aging Mind: In Support of Life-Long Learning

senior man reading in libraryIf you discovered that challenging yourself and keeping a steep “learning curve” while you were aging would help you slow down your sense of time passing too quickly,would it influence you to want to learn more? I believe in life-long learning anyway, but the article discussed below has actually strengthened my resolve to continue to challenge myself and learn. Part of my interest in life-long learning is the”use it or lose it” notion of exercising our brain, but now it also seems that it can help modify our sense of time passing so quickly.

I recommend an article from July 21, 2013 in the NY Times by Dr. Richard A. Friedman (see link below.) Dr. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical Center. So often we hear people talk about our perception that time passes more quickly as we age. I know for myself, I feel like I “blinked three times” and my son was suddenly older, I’m older and each season and year seems to fly by, often at what feels like a startling rate. I find my “anxious self” worrying that if it keeps going this fast, I may not be here for some of the milestones that are so important to me. Does this resonate for you?

However, even though this is a sense so many of us view as “a truth,” it’s hard to prove experimentally. This notion is what Dr. Friedman calls a “cognitive illusion.” He cites studies in Germany, France and the US. There are many non-age related factors that seem to influence our perception of time such as emotions, attention and memory. As he says, “to accurately gauge the passage of time required to accomplish a given task, you have to be able to focus and remember a sequence of information.which is why this is difficult for someone with ADD. On the whole most of us perceive short intervals of time similarly, regardless of our age.” “Why then,” he asks, “do older people look back at long stretches of their lives and feel it’s a race to the finish?” Dr. Friedman posits that our sense of time is a “cognitive illusion” and there are ways to understand it and ways to slow down “the velocity of time.”

He asks the question “Does learning new things slow our internal sense of time?” It’s fascinating to think about some of the studies he’s mentioned as well and some examples of the different sense of time from childhood through aging. He suggests we think back to what it was like when we were learning something for the first time-for example, learning to ride a bike, how to walk home from school, how to swim or drive a car. I had an interesting experience recently at a parent’s class for driver’s education for teenagers. I realized that I no longer separated the components necessary to learn to drive. I took it all for granted, but needed to break the steps down into manageable learning sequences to be helpful to my son.

This experience seemed to support Friedman’s comment that “It takes time to learn new tasks and to encode them in your memory. When you’re learning about the world for the first time, you are forming a fairly steady stream of new memories or events, places and people. When, as an adult, you look back at your childhood experiences, they appear to unfold in slow motion probably because the sheer number of them gives you the impression that they must have taken forever to accomplish.” As I recall, it seemed to have taken forever for me to learn to feel confident and competent driving, and now I take it for granted. I also recall more recently when I was trying to learn a new language (Hebrew) for my adult Bat Mitzvah, time slowed down since the learning curve was so steep for me. Friedman suggests this is merely as illusion of the ways adults understand the past when they look through “the telescope of lost time.”

The important point that he makes (which is not an illusion) is that “almost all of us faced far steeper learning curves when we were young. Most adults do not explore and learn about the world the way they did when they were young: adult life lacks the constant discovery and endless novelty of childhood.” “Studies have shown that the greater the cognitive demands of a task, the longer its duration is perceived to be.”Friedman offered an example of his father who, after he retired, read about everything from astronomy to natural history, travel and gardening. He realized his father never commented on how fast or slow his life seemed to be going. He was constantly learning, always alive to new ideas and experience. Perhaps this keeps us from noticing that time is passing.

He also wonders if it really matter that we, as older adults, have an illusion about time speeding up? He states, though, that “It matters because the distortion signals that we might squeeze more out of life.” “It’s simple,” he asserts, “if you want time to slow down, become a student again. Learn something that requires sustained effort; do something novel. Put down the thriller on the beach and read something about a new theory. Take a new route to work or your house, vacation at an unknown spot-and take your sweet time about it.”

Part of the take away for me is that by learning new and novel things as we age may open us to being able to enjoy doing so and savoring our new learning and accomplishments, rather than feeling the anxiety that time is passing so quickly that “I have to do everything yesterday.” It can be an urgency that, to some degree, energizes us, but also can immobilize us with anxiety and sadness. It’s easy to lose perspective and feel sadness that time is passing so quickly and “I won’t be here to do or see such and such.”

I prefer the idea that through a philosophy of life-long learning we can actually slow down our perception of the fast pace of time, keep our brain stimulated and functioning well and enjoy the approaching years rather than dread their passing so quickly that we go through the motions of doing new things-but perhaps not enjoying them-but merely trying to fend off “the grim reaper.” We really do need to stop and “smell the roses” and savor the moment, but also, in an active way, up our learning curve and perhaps, by being and doing new things, actually control some of this “cognitive illusion/ distortion” about the passage of time.

Read the article here.

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