Time and memory

img_1901One of the biggest perks of speaking at TED Women was getting to hear the other speakers. One of the most fascinating for me — given what I write about — was NYU memory researcher Lila Davachi. She spoke about how the brain perceives time in the past. Time goes slower, she noted, when there are lots of memories created. When people say they want more time, they generally don’t mean time spent staring at a wall, doing nothing else. Wanting more time means wanting more memories. “Time is memory,” she said, “and you control time.”

I was thinking about that as I thought about the 168 hours between mid-day Friday, October 21 and mid-day Friday October 28 in my life. It would be hard to come up with a sequence of 7 days that would have been more different from the norm. The moments of those days seemed almost designed to expand in memory. Friday afternoon I was “on safari” at Animal Kingdom in Disney. That night I was at a dance party on Disney’s fake beach on the boardwalk. The next day was Magic Kingdom with all its rides, and then a party at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter that night. There was more theme park action the next day, and Epcot late into the night, whirling around the Test Track ride multiple times. Theme park rides are designed to be extreme experiences, the intense sort that expand as you recall them, and there were many of them.

But the week didn’t stop there. After coming home Monday, it was off to San Francisco on Tuesday. Seeing a new city lays down new tracks in the brain (this is why the first day of a vacation seems to last a long time). Then there was the intensity of giving a speech, and then the intensity of watching other speeches. Many of them were quite emotional, or at least distinctive. They were the sort of thing you remember — but stacked on top of each other, roughly 40 in a row over two days.

This is why it seemed to me, as I sat in the hotel bar on Friday late afternoon working (and filling time before my red eye flight home), that the events of Thursday, October 20, seemed like ages before. Even running along the water in San Francisco on Wednesday morning seemed like it had occurred far more than two days before. After coming home, though, time seems less distinct. The weekend went fast in its usual march of kid stuff: playgrounds, birthday parties, reading the Economist while the toddler watched Daniel Tiger. I ran my usual short route. There are little different things, but no big different things, which is why time seems fast in retrospect (though the hours of 5-8 a.m. seem incredibly long while in them).

Obviously, life cannot be lived in a constant state of adventure. It would be expensive and exhausting. Still, I think it is worth thinking about how to introduce new, intense experiences from time to time. Life can easily drift to the routine. Sometimes this is a blessing (better routine than bad new intense experiences — like a car crash). But sometimes it is what makes time seem to speed by. If one is trying to control time, introducing adventure is one way to moderate the pace.

Are there any days or weeks that seem particularly long in memory to you?

Photo: I took two of my kids to the aquarium Sunday morning. We’ve been there many times, though seeing the hippos eating this close up was new! 

3 thoughts on “Time and memory

  1. My husband and I just got back from 11 days (sans kids!) in Germany and Ireland. Travel seems like one of those things that can make a week seem very long. Between time changes and new experiences, it seemed ages ago that I last picked up my kids from school.

    1. @Calee- sounds like a fun trip! And yes, travel with new experiences is definitely one of those things that stretch time. It’s always a trade off, because a travel vacation is less relaxing than a “pure” relaxation vacation (e.g. sit on the beach all day) and people find relaxing vacations more happy in the moment. But travel trips seem better in memory.

  2. I took two classes with Lila Davachi in undergrad at NYU (a decade ago) – she’s amazing and her seminar on memory is by far the class that stayed with me the most. I also remember her being so cool! I had such a professor crush on her.

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