Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dunbar Was Wrong!

In Catch 22, Dunbar was Yossarian’s closest friend.  Dunbar shared with Yossarian an aversion to death, but he has his own plan.   He is “working hard at increasing his life span . . . by cultivating boredom.”  As Heller writes:
Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it and the time passed so slowly. He had figured out that a single hour on the skeet-shooting range with people like Havermeyer and Appleby could be worth as much as eleven-times-seventeen years.
Dunbar’s theory was that the more he more boring and unpleasant he could make his life, the longer it would seem.

The slowest I ever experienced time was when, not a block from our old home, I was broadsided by a car running a red light. In the split second it took my car to be spun around 180 degrees, it seemed as if my senses had become incredibly focused. 

At first, I had no idea what had happened. Then it dawned on me that we had been struck by a car in the intersection.  I becames aware of a what seemed a tremendous force trying to push me to the right side of the car as we spun left.  And, in that same split second, it struck me that maybe I had run the red light and I had time to actually think about this. Incredibly enough, I had the presence of mind to look up as the intersection we had just gone through came into view and I saw that the light from the direction I had come was indeed green.

Everything seemed to go in slow motion. The instant seemed to take at least 10 seconds.

As violent as the crash was, and even though John and Tom were in the car – we were on our way to preschool – nobody was hurt and, because he just hit the front corner of the car, even the car wasn’t damaged too badly.

The other circumstance where time seemed to move more slowly was childhood. Here’s a poem that suggests that life mercifully speeds up as it gets more miserable:

The River of Life

The more we live, more brief appear
Our life's succeeding stages;
A day to childhood seems a year,
And years like passing ages.

The gladsome current of our youth,
Ere passion yet disorders,
Steals lingering like a river smooth
Along its grassy borders.

But as the careworn cheek grows wan,
And sorrow's shafts fly thicker,
Ye stars, that measure life to man,
Why seem your courses quicker?

When joys have lost their bloom and breath,
And life itself is vapid,
Why, as we reach the Falls of Death
Feel we its tide more rapid?

It may be strange—yet who would change
Time's course to slower speeding,
When one by one our friends have gone,
And left our bosoms bleeding?

Heaven gives our years of fading strength
Indemnifying fleetness;
And those of youth, a seeming length,
Proportioned to their sweetness.

-- Thomas Campbell

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has an explanation for both these time slow-downs. Eagleman says:
When our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel elongated.
When we receive lots of new information, it takes our brains a while to process it all. The longer this processing takes, the longer that period of time feels. When we’re in life-threatening situations, for instance, “we remember the time as longer because we record more of the experience. Life-threatening experiences make us really pay attention, but we don’t gain superhuman powers of perception.”

For similar reasons, this is why are childhoods seem to stretch forever:
[T]his is why childhood summers seem to last so much longer than adult summers: when you’re a child, everything is novel, and so more dense memories are written down. By the time you’re older, you’ve seen most patterns before, and so at the end of the summer very little new has been encoded.
So, how do you make time seem to go more slowly? In a word: novelty. If we feed our brains more new information, the extra processing time required will make us feel like time is moving more slowly. This is the opposite of what Dunbar was trying to do. As has been noted elsewhere, here, are five specific suggestions to slow down time and essentially re-create those endless days of childhood:

1. Keep learning.  Learning new things is a pretty obvious way to pass your brain new information on a regular basis. If you’re constantly reading, trying new activities or taking courses to learn new skills, you’ll have a wealth of ‘newness’ at your fingertips to help you slow down time.

2. Visit new places.  A new environment can send a mass of information rushing to your brain—smells, sounds, people, colors, textures. Your brain has to interpret all of this. Exposing your brain to new environments regularly will give it plenty of work to do, letting you enjoy longer-seeming days.

This doesn’t necessarily mean world travels, though. Working from a cafe or a new office could do the trick. As could trying a new restaurant for dinner or visiting a friend’s house you haven’t been to.

3. Meet new people.  We all know how much energy we put into interactions with other people. Unlike objects, people are complex and take more effort to ‘process’ and understand.

Meeting new people, then, is a good workout for our brains. That kind of interaction offers us lots of new information to make sense of, like names, voices, accents, facial features and body language.

4. Try new activities.  Have you ever played dodgeball on trampolines? How about jumped from a plane or raced cheese down a hill?

Doing new stuff means you have to pay attention. Your brain is on high alert and your senses are heightened, because you’re taking in new sensations and feelings at a rapid rate. As your brain takes in and notices every little detail, that period of time seems to stretch out longer and longer in your mind.

5. Be spontaneous. Surprises are like new activities: they make us pay attention and heighten our senses. Anyone who hates surprises can attest to that.

By overwhelming your brain with new information you’ll make it process time more slowly and it will slow time down for you. If only Dunbar had spent less time skeet-shooting range with Havermeyer and Appleby.

The following video about 20 minutes but worth it. And, at one point, the sound goes bad for a few moments. Be patient, it will return.


James R said...

… or tried skeet-shooting on a trampoline. You supply another great post and, as you assured us, a fascinating video. There's a lot there.

When Dr. David Eagleton talked about making life memorable (re: meaningful) by changing your habits, I couldn't help but think of Lent and reversing the position in which we sleep in our beds. But we should do something novel each Lent. I believe, also—to support your post—I can remember every Calvin ball game we ever invented and played.

Big Myk said...

The word "lent" is short for lenten, which comes from West Germanic langa-tinaz, meaning "long-days", from lanngaz, the root of Old English lang, meaning "long;" + tina, a root meaning "day." Linguists say that the compound probably refers to the increasing daylight that happens at that time of year but, if you are correct, it may well refer to the sense of lengthening of time which those practices occasion.

James R said...

'Ah…the veil parts…ever so slightly, ever so seemingly.