Why Time Flies
“Where does the time go?” my mother implores. At 84, she’s certain that time gathers speed as she gets older. In Why Time Flies, Alan Burdick looks at the evidence for the widespread impression that inspired his title. It turns out that pretty much anyone over the age of 20 agrees that time seems to pass faster than it did when they were younger.
We might suppose that our later years, featuring fewer landmark experiences than those of our youth, present a foreshortening of distance to the backward glance. But Burdick surveys research findings to show that the perceived speed of time’s “faster” passing is consistent, rather than accelerative, as we age (except for an upward blip about the age of 50). The impression that time flies ever faster, he concludes, is viral, a deterministic cliché: “time seems to speed up as we get older because other people say it does”.
If I find that explanation unconvincing, it nonetheless captures Burdick’s “mostly scientific” approach to his topic, making room for anecdote and misapprehensions amid lab visits and consultation with experts. Chief among his experts is the Stanford neuroscientist and polymath, David Eagleman, who studies the neural basis of time. Struggling to understand some knotty concept, Burdick writes, “I’d call Eagleman, and he’d walk me through it again from the beginning, slowly and cheerfully.” Why Time Flies benefits from that kind of insider access and from Burdick’s willingness to admit his own perplexity with a subject that’s full of abstractions. No scientist himself, he’s an engaging writer guided by curiosity.
Time, he concludes, is both a collaborative, social phenomenon and integral to human (and animal) biology. Citing the likes of St Augustine and William James, he considers time’s role in consciousness, and whether “time” ought to be not a noun but a verb, since “We don’t experience ‘time’, only time passing.” Some of the ideas he introduces seem to cast us more as replicant than human. For instance, might blinking act as a kind of forced reboot, intermittently recalibrating our senses by setting the time to zero? Each of us, writes Burdick, “is an assemblage of miniature circadian clocks” that start ticking in utero:
On the last day of gestation, the master clock in the fetal brain, which is already synchronized to the solar day, triggers the cascade of neurochemical signals that culminate in birth. FL
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "Alan Burdick, Why Time Flies". Subscribe here.