Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Have you ever thought that time might be moving faster the older you get?

This is not an uncommon perception, most people approaching mid-life begin to notice this and the common explanation is that your perspective of time is relative to your age. i.e. a year at the age of 50 is 2% of your life whereas at 5 years old it is 20% of your life.

That is not to say that the experience of time in the present has changed. An hour or day still seems the same duration as it is happening, or perhaps that depends on your activity at the time. Perhaps the urgency of life becomes more obvious when you begin to realise you have passed your expected mid-point.

Whilst thinking about this I began to consider the idea that this changing perception of time could be related to memory, which is based on your day to day experiences. As a test I asked myself how many experiences I could remember from yesterday.

There are only 1440 minutes in a day and you are probably asleep for roughly a third of those. So a good estimate would be a range between 250 and 1000 experiences per day depending on how “special” the day was. For this example let’s assume an average is 500 experiences a day and  I am around 50 years old.  On the basis that the volume of experience is related to my age, when I was 10 times younger at the age of 5 I should have memorised an average 5000 experiences per day.

If true this would imply that the brain is working harder when younger to store all these memories and that on reflecting back over the higher level of activity associated within a period of time it would seem relatively longer.

The mathematics for this type of relationship where the rate of new memories per day is inversely proportional to your age is logarithmic (assuming there is a direct relationship between perceived time periods and the number of new memories) and given a single point of reference (i.e. 500 memories per day at the age of 50) it is possible to calculate the rate at any point in life and the number of experiences over a whole life or between any two points in time.

Based on my own example it is possible to calculate that number of experiences on the first day of life would be about 9.25 million. The first 2 years of life would account for 61 million experiences and there would be about 95 million experiences in total at the age of 80. You can see that this describes a brain development where the brain fills up with experiences very quickly in early life and is 80% full by the age of 11.

Coincidentally I came across a film about baby brain development that described how at birth only 50% of the brain is developed, that is the ‘primitive’ brain that controls basic life functions. The cognitive functions which rare located in the cerebral cortex are undeveloped and the brain cells are not connected. As the new baby experiences life new connections are made to remember that specific activity and at the same time in the first 3 months of life the baby’s brain grows rapidly adding new cells and connecting them. Not only does the brain grow but so does the rate of new connections peaking at around 14 weeks into life. 

The brain continues to make new connections based on memories and experiences for the rest of that person’s life but the rate this happens then begins to reduce, looking rather like a logarithmic chart. This chart shows how the physical aspects of the brain develop.

This is why the first 2 years of a baby’s life is so important as they effectively hard-wire most of their memory based on millions of experiences. If my theory is correct the first 2 years of life could amount to over 60% of all the connections ever made in the brain.

This theory also explains why it is so hard to remember experiences in early life, not only are your senses under developed and your understanding of life very limited during those early years but the sheer number of experiences before the age of 11 (unless you are still under 18) would make the identification of any specific experiences similar to looking for a needle in a haystack. The well-functioning brain can perhaps only cope with tens of thousands of experiences and these are prioritised based on frequency of use or more recent times.

To conclude the best advice I could give to those concerned about the remainder of their lives and to help slow down the pace of life is to experience more and pack more into your life - driving up the quantity of memorable experiences each and every day. 

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