The Relative Passage of Time: Memory Retention Theory

Why does time pass so fast?

timeAlmost everyone has heard the statement, “Time flies when you are having fun.” Our brief time living our lives does go quicker than we think. We are young one day and old seemingly the next. “Remember how short my time is: wherefore hast thou made all men in vain?” (Psalms 89:47). Why do we perceive time this way? Have you not wondered about an explanation for that enigma? One explanation for this could be called the memory retention theory.

When I was a child and my brothers and I would get off of the school bus at around 3:30 p. m., it seemed to us like a long time until we had to go to bed that night. We would get chores done, play, run around in the woods, ride our bikes, make our cardboard box forts, build little cabins out of small trees in the woods, and experience all sorts of activities before it was time to come inside for the night for the dreaded bath time and then settling down. The time we had passed the same for us as it did our parents, but I can assure you that as an adult when it gets to be 3:30 p. m. now, it seems like the day is almost over with little time left for much. We can look backward and it is like a patient told me this last week, “Everything from 30 to 60 years old just seems like a blur.” This is no recent experience we all have for it is mentioned in Psalms 90:4: “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”

Other times in our lives although do seem to last a longer time and we find this scripture in Lamentations 5:20, “Wherefore dost thou forget us forever, and forsake us so long time?” If you have been in pain or anguish before, you have probably noticed how time seems to drag on while you are hurting. Have you ever had an accidental injury and noticed that you remember everything in detail while time seems to slow down? You can recall it almost in slow motion and remember the most intricate details of it. What is the explanation for this difference?

Think of a movie being played with the old films of yesterday when the reel whizzed along with multitudes of still images that when played fast enough seemed to have motion to us in our minds. It played as a movie when shown in rapid sequence, but if you looked at the images on the reel of the film there were still images. Our eyes are like cameras of a movie recorder and life is before us to record it all. However, when we play back our “movies”, we do not have the ability to play them at slower or faster speeds like an old movie reel could have done, but play them at the same rate of frames per period of time. If we record many frames, then the movie lasts longer, but if there are few frames, then it is played back much faster. How many frames we record depends upon our memory capacity at the time of our experience.

When we are very young, our minds are like brand new, empty computers with clean hard drives except for the operating system. A new computer always functions so fast and efficiently with a quicker recall of whatever we try to access. If you let that computer get too much on it or the wrong “memories” on it that use up too much background processing power, then you will have a very slow functioning computer with poor recall ability. Our human brains record everything in detail more readily when we are young, so the playback with a very high number of frames makes it last a long time as we live it or perceive it later over the same time period. As we get older, our memory capacities slowly diminish with the number of frames captured being lower. Therefore, our experience seems to pass faster. You have probably heard many people state that the older one gets, the faster time passes.

Now that we have a basis for how to think about why time would be perceived differently, some questions would naturally come up then such as to why would times of extreme pain or joy seem to last longer to us adults when everything else seems to be the usual speed. This can be explained by the ability of our bodies to enable the “fight or flight” mode when we are stressed, endangered, or just overly excited for pleasant or painful reasons. When entering “fight or flight” mode, the blood flow in a body is diverted away from our intestinal tract and directed toward our brains, muscles, and heart. With the greater brain blood flow comes an increased functional capacity. A vehicle wreck, a life-threatening experience, or some other traumatic experience is remembered many times in complete detail and time seemed to slow down. Those times of life that are the most pleasant seem to pass fast because it is during those times that we are most relaxed with normal blood flow.

The loss of memory that occurs as we age is mainly due to vascular disease that slowly develops over time; the nervous system is the first to suffer when the microvasculature becomes diseased. Just ask a diabetic; they get this type of disease faster than other people. Some of the nerves of our bodies have blood vessels only one red blood cell in diameter.

If we want to experience life to the fullest while keeping the time from seeming to pass so fast, it is important for us to live as healthy a life as we can. God’s word has a lot to say about how to live healthy because God does want us to live up to our potential so that we can glorify Him in the process.

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