“The pace of life” was the title of a 1976 paper in Nature in which Marc and Helen Bornstein did something very simple: they went to 15 cities in Europe, Asia, and North America, and simply measured the rate of walking of unwitting subjects over a marked, 50-foot stretch of pavement on sunny days of moderate temperature. What they found is summarized in this graph from their paper, which shows that people from larger cities walk significantly faster. There was a threefold difference between the smallest and largest towns!
Their interpretation, which they based on the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram, was a bit dicey: they suggested that larger towns overload the mental processing ability of their inhabitants, and so the people simply walk faster in bigger towns “to minimize environmental stimulation.” There are, of course, other interpretations—I’m sure you can think of a few. (Rushing to and from work over larger distances is one.)
Regardless, this was one of those crazy but appealing ideas that we scientists get sometimes, and testing it did point to something interesting. I’m sure, though, that these results would no longer be publishable in Nature.
This is by way of introducing another crazy idea I had a while back, and have been chewing over for some time. It’s also about “the pace of life,” but about the pace of our entire lives. If you’ve lived a substantial time, as I have, you may have noticed that the seasons and years seem to be passing more quickly than when you were younger. This summer, for instance, seems to me to have vanished in a flash. And I’ve noticed this more strongly as I’ve gotten older.
So I made a hypothesis: one sees the passage of time in relation to the length of one’s past life. The duration of each moment is weighed in relation to how many moments have gone before, and so seems more fleeting when you’ve experienced more moments. And that’s why, for older people, time seems to pass more quickly. An alternative hypothesis is that as one gets closer to the close of one’s life, one senses “time’s wingèd chariot” more prominently, so time seems to pass more quickly because you don’t have as much left. (I call this the Raitt Hypothesis after Bonnie Raitt’s song, “Nick of Time,” which includes this lyric: “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.”)
Both of these theories, however, predict that as one gets older, one’s perception of time becomes compressed.
I realize that this is just a dumb idea, but it’s eminently testable. Here’s my experiment: take a number of people of different ages, put them in a room, and ask them to tell you when an hour has passed. Of course, you can’t let them count (that’s why I suggest an hour rather than a minute), and perhaps there should be some distraction so that people are doing quotidian tasks when asked to judge the time elapsed. My hypothesis would predict that older people would think that an hour had gone by after a shorter time than younger people; in other words, there would be a negative correlation between age and actual time elapsed.
I’m not aware that anyone has done such an experiment, though it’s an obvious idea, and maybe the notion is flawed, but surely a significant correlation (either positive or negative) would mean something. If anything has been published on it—because, of course, I’ll never actually do this experiment—let me know.
Does this sound totally off the wall?
Just to round out this post, here’s an apposite song from 1966: “Time,” by the Pozo Seco singers. It was their only hit, but it was popular in the U.S. If you remember this, you’re old enough to have noticed how time seems to be passing faster.