Saturday, April 21, 2012

Memory and Time

"Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.  You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one.  If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next - and disappear.  That's why it's important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible to anchor our memories.  Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perceptions of our lives."
Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein

I just finished reading Joshua Foer's book, Moonwalking With Einstein - it's a fantastic read about Foer's experience as a journalist exploring the world of competitive memorizers and his own training for the US Memory Championships.  If you enjoy learning about the brain or groups of what some might call really eccentric people, I would highly recommend checking this one out.

One of the ideas that really stuck with me in the book is how memory influences our perception of time.  I've always hated the old cliche that the years go faster and faster as we get older - but now it actually makes sense to me.  When we're young we learn new things constantly.  We're exposed to new experiences all the time, and those experiences "anchor" our memories.  Our routines change regularly as well - from the time we go to bed at night to the activities we might participate in after school or on weekends, to the people we spend time with.  Psychologically, time moves slower because the novelty is endless.

But as we age, our routines solidify.  We do pretty much the same things from day to day.  We interact with the same people.  We take in the same types of information.  Without new "anchors" in place, the days blur together and before you know it we're saying annoying things like, "Can you believe it's already April!?" or "Each year just seems to go by faster than the last."

Thank goodness there's an antidote to this trite chit-chat.  Changing up our routines, trying new things, pushing ourselves to mix it up in our day-to-day lives is good for our brains and the key to feeling like the weekend just got that much longer.  Time might fly when we're having fun, but in retrospect it actually elongates. 

So what are some ways to put this principle into action?  It doesn't take an attempt on Everest or a month long retreat to Bali to drop an anchor in place.  Small changes can be equally as effective (and much better on your bank account).  Try making something totally different for your breakfast this week.  Visit a new place and do something fun and out of the ordinary for you - maybe an easy hike at a park you haven't been to before or checking out a museum that sounds interesting to you.  Go on an inexpensive adventure with a friend, like a trip to a rock climbing gym for an introductory course or a painting class at a fun spot like The Paint Bar.  Volunteer for a few hours somewhere new.

I have been playing with this principle a bit and it really does work.  For example, last weekend I headed out of the city (something I don't do very often) to spend my morning volunteering at a farm.  This experience changed my scenery, my usual Saturday routine, introduced me to new people, a new place, and even exercised my muscles in a totally different way than I'm used to.  The result?  The weekend felt way longer than normal.  I know it will be a day I'll remember for years to come, anchoring my memory in a sea of what would otherwise be regular daily work life and tepid weekend outings.

Hanging with the pigs, dropping an anchor.

I will definitely be pushing myself to try more new things and create more novel experiences for myself - if nothing else to stave off those tired old cliches about the speed of time - and I hope you'll join me!

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