Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

I was listening to Soul Music on Radio 4 this week. The song was one I did not know: Sandy Denny ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’, which she wrote when she was 19. It’s a very poignant song about the passing of things and how we experience time and loss. The programme brought together various people who had been touched by the song and at the end David Eagleman was interviewed. He is a neuroscientist and has studied time and how we perceive it, his interest in this growing from an experience he had as a child. He described how as a child he fell off a roof and as he did so had time to consider if there was anything he could grab hold of and also to think that this must be how Alice felt as she fell down the hole – before hitting the ground.

Latter when David Eagleman studied physics he worked out how long it had taken him to fall, and was astonished to realise that what had seemed like a long duration in terms of his thoughts and observations, had only taken .8 of a second. This reminded me of my experience of being knocked off my scooter as a 17 year old. I was going along happily making my way home when a car pulled out of a side road in front of me. I saw it and knew there was no way to avoid hitting it side on as I pulled on the brakes and tried to swerve to avoid a direct hit. I hit it side on and was thrown over the car onto the opposite side of the road. As this happened I had the most bizarre experience of time seeming to stop and be vast as I felt my self in the air. I remember seeing my whole life as a film, playing in front of my eyes. And I had the thought “it’s not time to go yet I have things still to do”. With this I felt a thud as I landed on the road. I sat up, my chin bleeding. I looked around, and said “I have the most frightful headache!”.

The rest of the day proceed at normal time, with the trip to hospital, going into surgery for my chin to be stitched. Recovering. But I was left, as with David Eagleman, with a sense that time is not what we think it to be. In the space of a second I felt that I had had time to review my whole life – all 17 years it at that point, so not so much – but still more than I would usually be able to remember in a second!

Now as a 46 year old man I notice how for both myself and friends we all have the experience of time passing so much more quickly than as a child. I remember how as a child the long Summer holiday really did feel as if it was a universe of time – it seemed like a vast expanse of weeks, full of adventure and long summer days. Now I reach the end of the year and wonder where 12 months have gone!

David Eagleman addresses this as well in the programme and what he says has really fascinated me. His interest in time has led him to study how we perceive time and he has found that there is a reason time seems to last longer as a child. Children are learning about the world – it is all new and full of wonder and surprises. The brain is still building up its template by which it will read the world so is constantly learning and taking in new information to assimilate and file. As an adult we’ve learnt the rules and patterns that govern our perception of the world and so are not laying down new memories. As a result of this there is less for the brain to do to process and store each day and thus less of a sense of time being long and expansive as each day is like the last and passes without note or novelty.

Think of it as going on a journey for the first time. You look at the landmarks, orient yourself, notice how to navigate your way along the route. But once this has become familiar after several journeys, you soon slip into auto pilot, not even needing to pay that much attention to where you are going in order to arrive. I remember this experience even as a child – for some reason the route to my Uncle’s always seemed longer on the way there, whereas driving back always felt faster – although it was the same time and same route. What if our life is like this – having become familiar with it, it just goes by quickly?

David Eagleman suggests that to give ourselves the sense of living longer – or at least slowing down the perception of how fast time is passing – through seeking novelty. If we give our brain something new to learn or do it will once agin have to store new learning, memories and experiences, making the perception of time slow down. I remember on an 8 week mindfulness course we were talking about auto  pilot, which is the theme in week 1. Some people really reflected on how they had fallen into automatic ways of behaving and started to take a different route to the station on leaving work. They said how amazing it was to walk a new route after years of always going the same way, and how much more enjoyable it was to have this sense of novelty. Perhaps as well as finding new routes in our outer life, though walking different streets to get to a familiar destination, we can also take new routes in our life: learning a new hobby, trying out a new way of being, or as  mentioned last week finding a new way to start our day – for me this has been by dancing in my room rather than our usual routine of starting the day!


The other place you can notice this relativity of time is in meditation itself. On any Monday evening there will be those who feel that the 25 minutes of the sit went by so quickly. Whilst for others the sit will have seemed to be an eternity. In that sense there is no such thing as 25 minutes. There is only our perception of time in the present moment. And that changes depending on how we are relating to the present moment as it arises in our experience. Wanting an experience to be over, it seems to go on for ever. Wanting it never to end, it seems to go all too quickly. This makes boredom in meditation a very valuable place to work. All we are doing is sitting, resting our attention on the breath – so there is nothing really to object to in this experience. But when the heart-mind does not want to settle in the moment there is a sense of struggle and this can give rise to a feeling of boredom or irritation: either way the desire is the same: for the meditation to be over. By sitting with this experience it is possible to learn that time exists as a perception and changes when I change how I am relating to my experience in the present moment. Become interested in the sense of boredom and suddenly instead of the time dragging until the bell goes it will pass quickly.

This applies in our our life as well as our meditation practice. There is a fantastic scene in Metropolis where a worker is waiting to be relived from his shift. As he looks at the minute had of the clock it seems to last an eternity before clicking the last minute to the end of the shift. I remember this experience myself when I was working as a customer service assistant on London Underground. Standing at the gates looking at the clock for the last five minutes of my shift seemed to last longer than all the hours I had worked! So this seems to point to a paradox. If we take what David Eagleman has said about time seeming to last longer when we approach things with a fresh and questioning mind but that it also slows down when we are disengaged and bored. Perhaps the difference is the sense of alive engagement. In boredom and the feeling of life passing by too quickly there is a sense of not being fully present in the experience of living. In both an engaged and curious exploration of life through being fully in the moment and the experience of life being novel and new through finding ways of living that step out of our routine habits, there is a sense of aliveness in the moment.