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Memory and Perceptions of the Passage of Time or Change of Place

 

We do not necessarily forget as we get older,
... but we do reorder the priorities of the mind differently
.

 

"Memory's unreliable ... Memory's not perfect. It's not even that good. Ask the police; eyewitness testimony is unreliable ... Memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car. It's an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts."

- Memento

 


 

"We are all familiar with the worrying sensation that time seems to pass by and more swiftly as we age. Could it be that the human brain keeps track of the passage of time by the frequency of novel additions to its memory? In our youth, most of the experiences we encounter during the course of a day are new or have some element of newness. This makes them memorable, in the sense that there is potential survival value in the brain adding them to its store for future reference. It seems reasonable to assume that our subjective experience of the passage of time is linked to the availability of fixed objective reference points. And this is evidenced by the absence or gross distortion of time sense which people report when they spend extended periods in total isolation. When we are young, all sorts of events in the outside world catch our attention and are subsequently ferreted away in our brain. With so many novel entries being made in our daily memory diary, the experience of time is stretched out. But as we grow older, more and more of the things we do and see are mere repetitions of what has happened before. Habituated actions, sights, and sounds fail to register in our consciousness: the loudly ticking clock that its owner no longer hears, the daily drive to work that is done on mental autopilot, there are many such examples. As our lives revolve increasingly around set routines so there is less need for the brain to lay down fresh memory traces-our "novel event density" falls dramatically while, at the same time, the passage of our lives alarmingly speeds up. The enjoyment of life, and indeed the very experience of life in a fully conscious way, seems to hinge upon novelty and change. We don't want to die, to stop being who we are now. But continued existence of any meaningful kind seems to demand that we eventually become someone else. How can we make sense of this apparent contradiction?"

- Soul Search - David Darling

 


 

"There is, after all, something peculiar about the process of habituating oneself in a new place, the often laborious fitting in and getting used, which one undertakes for its own sake, and of set purpose to break it all off as soon as it is complete, or not long thereafter, and to return to one's former state. It is an interval, an interlude, inserted, with the object of recreation, into the tenor of life's main concerns; its purpose the relief of the organism, which is perpetually busy at its task of self-renewal, and which was in danger, almost in process, of being vitiated, slowed down, relaxed, by the bald, unjointed monotony of its daily course. But what then is the cause of this relaxation, this slowing-down that takes place when one does the same thing for too long at a time? It is not so much physical or mental fatigue or exhaustion, for if that were the case, then complete rest would be the best restorative. It is rather something psychical; it means that the perception of time tends, through periods of unbroken uniformity, to fall away; the perception of time, so closely bound up with the consciousness of life that the one may not be weakened without the other suffering a sensible impairment. Many false conceptions are held concerning the nature of tedium. In general it is thought that the interestingness and novelty of the time-content are what 'make the time pass'; that is to say, shorten it; whereas monotony and emptiness check and restrain its flow. This is only true with reservations. Vacuity, monotony, have, indeed, the property of lingering out the moment and the hour and of making them tiresome. But they are capable of contracting and dissipating the larger, the very large time-units, to the point of reducing them to nothing at all. And conversely, a full and interesting content can put wings to the hour and the day; yet it will lend to the general passage of time a weightiness, a breadth and solidity which cause the eventful years to flow far more slowly than those poor, bare, empty ones over which the wind passes and they are gone. Thus what we call tedium is rather an abnormal shortening of the time consequent upon monotony. Great spaces of time passed in unbroken uniformity tend to shrink together in a way to make the heart stop beating for fear; when one day is like all the others, then they are all like one; complete uniformity would make the longest life seem short, and as though it had stolen away from us unawares. Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself. Such is the purpose of our changes of air and scene, of all our sojourns at cures and bathing resorts; it is the secret of the healing power of change and incident. Our first days in a new place, time has a youthful, that is to say, a broad and sweeping, now, persisting for some six or eight days. Then, as one " gets used to the place," a gradual shrinkage makes itself felt. He who clings or, better expressed, wishes to cling to life, will shudder to see how the days grow light and lighter, how they scurry by like dead leaves, until the last week, of some four, perhaps, is uncannily fugitive and fleet. On the other hand, the quickening of the sense of time will flow out beyond the interval and reassert itself after the return to ordinary existence: the first days at home after the holiday will be lived with a broader flow, freshly and youthfully - but only the first few, for one adjusts oneself more quickly to the rule than to the exception; and if the sense of time be already weakened by age, or - and this is a sign of low vitality - it was never very well developed, one drowses quickly back into the old life, and after four-and-twenty hours it is as though one had never been away, and the journey had been but a watch in the night.

"We have introduced these remarks here only because our young Hans Castorp had something like them in mind when, a few days later, he said to his cousin, and fixed him with his bloodshot eyes: 'I shall never cease to find it strange that the time seems to go so slowly in a new place. I mean - of course it isn't a question of my being bored; on the contrary, I might say that I am royally entertained. But when I look back - in retrospect, that is, you understand - it seems to me I've been up here goodness only knows how long; it seems an eternity back to the time when I arrived, and did not quite understand that I was there, and you said: ' Just get out here ' - don't you remember? - That has nothing whatever to do with reason, or with the ordinary ways of measuring time; it is purely a matter of feeling. Certainly it would be nonsense for me to say: I feel I have been up here two months - it would be silly. All I can say is..., very long.' "

- The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann

 

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