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Gone in the blink of an eye

It seems that the more years you have, the faster they go

January 01, 2011|Sandy Banks
  • New Year's Eve fireworks light up the sky over Sydney, Australia.
New Year's Eve fireworks light up the sky over Sydney, Australia. (Rob Griffith/Associated…)

It took the long checkout lines at the grocery store and the crowd in the Bev Mo parking lot to remind me that Friday was New Year's Eve.

I've been on vacation for a week, doing the couch potato thing, enjoying my daughters and my dogs and my freedom from responsibilities. It was life in suspended animation, until the reality of a new decade hit me.

Didn't we just do the whole Y2K thing? Has it really been 10 years since the last New Year's Eve I remember celebrating?

I figured I would write this week about the holiday's meaning and memories. But I think New Year's Eve has lost its allure with me.

I tried to amp myself, but finally accepted the reality: This holiday seems to come around too often, too soon for me.

Years ago, the holiday seemed like a shimmering reminder of new possibilities. Now it feels more like a reminder that time is slipping away from me.

I'm glad to say goodbye to 2010, but the way the years seem to fly by, I expect 2011 to pass in a blink, a blur of missed opportunities.

And I'm not the only one greeting this new year with a mix of optimism and melancholy.

Research shows that the older we get, the faster the years seem to go by. And it's not just fear of our own mortality that troubles us.

Scientists aren't sure how or why it happens, but people do change the way they perceive time as they age.

"They just have this sense, this feeling that time is going faster than they are," Duke University psychology professor Warren Meck told National Public Radio in an interview of "All Things Considered" last year. The experience seems to be universal, he said. The perception has been documented over the years, across cultures and around the world.

Meck suggest that changes in the aging brain cost older folks the ability to accurately perceive the passage of time.

Mimicking scholarly research studies, an NPR reporter marshaled evidence with an impromptu project on the streets of Washington D.C. last winter. .

She asked pedestrians to close their eyes and signal when a minute had gone by. Subjects in their 20s signaled between 55 and 65 seconds, she found. But for those over 60, a minute seemed longer. They didn't call time until 90 seconds had gone by.

Professor Meck blames the brain's "neural conduction velocity" slowdown. Our brains pulse more slowly as we get older, and we rely on those pulses to calculate the passage of time. That (paradoxically, it seems), creates the sensation that life is speeding up.

If you perceive 90 seconds as one minute, he explained, it seems like more is happening in a shorter time. "Therefore, it seems the world is going faster."

And New Year's Eve is coming around more quickly and more often.

That's not the only theory, of course.

One explanation draws on basic math. When you're 10 years old, a year is one-tenth of your life. But by the time you hit middle age, each year has become proportionately smaller. It feels like time is flying by because the years seem shorter the more you collect them.

Another theory relies on the mind's mechanics. Our brains record new experiences in exquisite detail, then carefully preserves them in our memory. But when a similar experience occurs again, the brain recognizes it and responds with a quick sketch that is crammed into an overstuffed drawer.

So milestones dominate our memories. The Technicolor moments of youth persist, while recollections of the mundane fade. That's why later years — sprinkled with fewer vivid first-time experiences — can seem to pass in a blurry haze: quickly, with less to hold on to.

And it explains why I can remember so clearly clinking glasses of ginger ale with my kid sister to ring in the new year 40 years ago, but I couldn't tell you for the life of me what I did a year ago on New Year's Eve.

I'm casting my vote for the milestone theory, because the last New Year's Eve I clearly remember was the night the 21st century began. I gathered that night, a decade ago, with family and friends in my living room, champagne glasses poised for celebration and flashlights at hand for the catastrophe that Y2K was supposed to bring.

The stroke of midnight brought joy and relief, a victory over the doomsayers and a triumph of technology. Computers didn't crash, planes didn't fall from the sky. Not even the coffee maker in my kitchen missed a beat as I called on it when the drinking was done.

Today it seems unfathomably quaint that we believed a programming glitch could have unraveled our computerized country. And yet we have come undone, instead, in ways we couldn't have foreseen then.

We mastered the technology, but in the decade that followed, we were vanquished by old-fashioned demons — greed and hubris and inattention.

So it seemed right to skip the party this year. I'm not sure if this is one I'll remember, but it's one that I will fully enjoy—on my couch, with my dogs, a blazing fire and a glass of merlot—and my eyes closed as I try to adjust my mind's perception and try my best to slow down time.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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