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Why Time Flies (and How to Stop It)

By Burkey Belser
August 11, 2010
Why Time Flies (and How to Stop It)

Those who’ve followed our collected research on The Reptilian Brain may recall Tim Ambler’s theory that learning is incidental; that is, most of what we learn does not come from sitting in a classroom or reading books but simply from moving around in the world.

For the most part, we at Greenfield/Belser care because we are trying to build brands by accumulating impressions in the brains of others—in the amygdala, the brain’s storehouse at the base of the brain.

Other research across a wide variety of fields, particularly sensation and perception, not only confirms the theory of incidental learning but adds an interesting dimension to learning that may answer the age-old question, “Why does time seem to pass so quickly the older we get?”

Let’s skip to the conclusion: time flies because the newness of life wears off, our sensory organs decline in their acuity and the circle of our life grows smaller.

Remember learning to drive a car? I’ve just been helping my younger daughter get her license so I’m able to recall the process with horrifying clarity with every herky-jerky pulse of the gas pedal, missed stop sign and lurch into oncoming traffic. But with just a couple of years of practice under her belt, driving will become second-nature to her.

Second nature. This is where our discussion begins. Learning as infants should be called “first nature.” Not only is everything stunningly new but our senses are as alert as they will ever be. A healthy newborn can hear from between 20 to 20,000 Hz. By the time that newborn is permitted to drive, the upper range will have dropped about 2,000 Hz. By the time that newborn is 50, a significant loss of range will begin to occur. The loss of range as we age will generally be more an annoyance than a significant debility. What’s significant is that, during the course of a lifetime, the child will have heard quite a few sounds, assigning different sounds meaning—until they become “second nature.” And no longer heard with the same surprise.

So it goes across the spectrum of the senses. As a child, our cornea is crystal clear. A child sees even an overcast day as very, very bright. But over time the cornea colors much like teeth do and the world is not so unbearably bright. And the newness of seeing wears off—that’s a leaf, that’s the sky, that’s my car. Big deal. In other words, incidental learning begins to catalogue the sensory world into a vast personal library of stored impressions. Remember, learning is stored short term in the hippocampus, later to be transferred for the long haul to that famous amygdala. Bottom line: all that learning is still there!

As newness wears off, our first nature becomes second nature. Even incidental learning is slowed as the mind checks through its list of learned impressions, by now familiar, unexotic.

The slowdown in learning—from the thrill of the new to the banal recognition of the familiar—is accentuated by the diminution of the effectiveness of our sensory apparatus. Even a 30-year old does not hear what a 20-year old hears; a 50-year old cannot catch tones a 40-year old will hear. Acuity fades.

Familiarity slows learning. Age slows learning. (If you wonder why I’m both researching and writing this, guess my age.) Finally, a third feature contributes to the slowdown of learning—the circuit of our ambit shrinks. Back and forth to work every day. Friends on the weekends. Kids during the week. We call it a treadmill. There’s not much new in it week after week. For the most part, we will have encountered it before.

As learning slows, sensory organs are less engaged. The once new is now old. Learning slows to a crawl and, because there’s less and less learning to stall time, time ticks by faster and faster until it flies.

What’s the cure (assuming we want one)?
Personally, I’m signing up for the clinical trial. The years go by too quickly. I have too much yet to experience. I love life too much to just let it pass by without protest.

Drugs
Timothy Leary had a point. Acid is a remarkable drug at making the familiar new again. Time is slowed to an infant(esimal) level. Trouble is, as the Dalai Lama noted, the effect is temporary. Apparently, acid scrambles the stored information in the amygdala and suppresses sensory discretion so one “hears” colors or “sees” sounds. Fun, but exhausting. And not a daily medication I’d like to take.

Discomfort
We spend so much energy getting comfortable that we rarely note what’s lost in the process. In order to slow time and to speed up learning—to “see, hear, taste, touch, smell” again—we need to (okay, I’ll say it) step out of our comfort zone. Wear your watch on the other wrist. See Hamlet live. Eat blowfish. Go to the planetarium. Travel, then travel some more. Seek out not just the new but the uncomfortable. We don’t remember the times that went beautifully. We remember when things went wrong. Why? We are receiving new impressions that contradict familiar expectations.

Active noticing
I’d like to posit a new theory here that I want to call “active noticing” like “active listening.” But, no matter how many ways I turn the idea to the light, it won’t work. Time will pass quickly. I don’t believe there’s a thing you can do about it because in addition to the loss of newness brought on by a lifetime of learning, failing sensory organs and a circumscribed, quotidian life, inertia rules. Even the most motivated—and I count myself among them—fail on a daily basis to muster the energy required to sustain a truly fresh life, the life of a baby. But knowledge is power. I know why time flies; I know time flies. You can do this—I can do this—we can celebrate sight, sound, taste, touch and smell every single moment. Or fly trying.

What’s in this for marketers?
Brands age, too. Generations replace one another. Brands do not deserve their place in the market; they must continue to earn them. To keep your brand fresh, stand back and notice it flying by. Then stop. And make it young again.