Experience the Longest Summer of Your Life

“Are we there yet?”

These words are undoubtedly still ringing in the ears of parents across the country who made the long drive south for spring break. Time crawls to a kid stuck in the backseat.

In fact, it’s not just long drives that pass slowly for kids, it’s life itself. When I was a kid summer vacation dragged on and on and some days seemed endless.

We’ve all heard that time goes faster as we get older. And it sure seems that way, doesn’t it? The days, weeks, months and years fly by, almost indistinguishably. Later this week, at a time when many of us are still getting used to writing 2016 on our checks, we’ll start hearing: “Can you believe it’s already April?”.

But of course time does not go by any faster than it did when we were younger. It just feels that way. So what’s the deal?

The Majesty and Mystery of Our Minds

To better understand why time flies as we age, it’s instructive to think about how you got to this website – stick with me, this is going somewhere. You clicked a link or typed a website URL and your browser displayed this page, which is made up of a bunch of different files and resources – style sheets, images, artwork – that is stored on a server.

Fetching information over a network is slow. It can require numerous round trips between your computer and the server on which the information is housed. To speed things up, your browser stores, or “caches” previously fetched resources. It’s much faster for your browser to read data from the browser cache than to try to re-read the files from the server. Accordingly, when you visit a website for the first time, it takes longer to load the page than it will on subsequent visits.

In other words, new internet experiences take longer to process. Our minds work in much the same way, which is why time seems to go faster the older we get.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and author who studies how our brains perceive time. In an article in the New Yorker, he explains that our brains process familiar information quickly. But when new information is introduced, it takes our brains longer to organize and synthesize the data, making the experience more memorable and time (appear to) slow down.

“This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” Eagleman said – why childhood summers seems to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass. “Time is this rubbery thing…it stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”

Website caching makes your internet experience faster. Brain caching makes your life experience faster. The problem is that most of us want the former, but not the latter. And the problem gets worse as we age. When we’re young we’re processing lots and lots of new stuff. But the older we get the more often we come into contact with information that our brains have already encountered.

New Experiences Slow Things Down

If it’s the “familiar” that speeds life up, then introducing more “unfamiliar” will slow things down. It’s when we slip into a routine that time quickly slips by. By exposing our brains to new information through new experiences, the additional neuro-processing time required can help us to feel like time is moving more slowly.

I like to think it’s the same with dogs. We have an almost-eight-year old mini goldendoodle named Izzy. We let her out in the backyard and she pokes around and eventually comes back to the door and we let her in. Then she almost immediately goes back to the door as if she wants to go back out. She’s wound up and won’t relax. But when I take her for a walk – even a relatively short one – outside of her familiar confines, she is tired, content and lays down upon returning home. It can’t be the exercise alone that explains the difference, because she’s moving when she’s in the yard. It must also be the new sights, sounds, smells and tastes that she encounters on the walk that get her mind going.

I don’t know about you, but too many of my days this winter felt like they were spent in the backyard and not out on a walk sniffing a new trail. Time has been moving way too fast as of late. I plan to slow down the clock by trying to bombard my brain with some new information in the coming months. A summer-slow-down-bucket-list, if you will, involving new activities, new places, and spontaneous fun.

We’re starting with an Airstream camping adventure in the Upper Peninsula in early June. Anyone want to place a bet on the probability that spending five days and nights in a 25-foot trailer with three little kids will, indeed, go by slowly? That trip will be followed by lots of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula exploring excursions. Heather and I will be getting plenty of use out of our bikes cruising the TART Trail and downtown Traverse City.

A friend recently suggested starting an “Up North” summer hobby, and right now we’re leaning toward fly fishing. I’m not sure what Heather thinks about that, since she may have assumed that golf or paddle boarding already fit that bill. Question for Izzy: Does time go by more slowly in the dog house?

Obviously it’s not practical to be constantly chasing down new experiences. I just had a day that flew by, but from what I can remember I spent most of it at my desk. I’m sure things happened that were noteworthy. The problem is that I probably just wasn’t paying attention. While not every experience can be a new one, even the routine need not be unmemorable. It just requires more focus on being mindful of our everyday experiences. If you can’t do more, notice more. {tweet that}

That sentiment is backed up by clinical psychologist Dr. Steven Meyers who told The Huffington Post that: “Mindfulness allows people to appreciate their surroundings and can lead to the feeling that time is passing more slowly. Paying attention to events that are pleasant or interesting certainly can enhance our mood and allows us to savor positive experiences.”

Regardless of what we do, we can’t stop the relentless march of the clock. We all have the same 24/7/365 to deal with. But we are 100% in control of what we make of it.

Here’s to a long, slow summer.

What’s on your summer bucket list? We’re always on the lookout for new adventures, new experiences, and new places to explore.

Jay Harrington