Saturday, April 4, 2009

Time the Compressor*

"Time isn't holding us, Time isn't after us"

Do you ever feel that, as you grow older, time is accelerating? Consider the way we frequently talk about the passage of time. "I can't believe it's April already!" "The year just flew by." "Was it that long ago? It seems like it happened just last week." (You get the idea.) It's very common for folks to comment on the speedy passage of time, wondering "where the time has gone" and such.

Well, friends - I've got that all figured out. And I'm willing to share the secret with you.

My theory (which, as Ann Elk pointed out, is mine) is that our minds compress - not time itself, of course** - but how we experience the passage of time. Since I'm a computer geek, my illustration uses the example of how data is compressed when creating a ZIP file (to store multiple and/or large data files) or an MP3 audio file. The compression software takes the original data, removes the "empty" spaces. and finds certain bits of the data or sounds in the music that are (almost) exactly alike. It retains all of the unique bits of data in the file and only stores pointers to the other parts that are repeated in the original file - so that when the file is decompressed, all the data can be placed back in its original sequence.

[Note: For all you readers who know more about data compression than I do - my intention in the paragraph above is merely to provide a frame of reference for my theory (which, as I pointed out previously, is mine) - not to completely or with great precision describe how data compression works. If you interested in critiquing the theory as a whole - cool; but don't bother pointing out how I really don't understand data compression - 'cause I don't care.]

[For all the rest of you: Sorry for the digression.]

I believe our minds compress time in a similar fashion - by eliminating the parts where "nothing is happening" and where the same thing happens repeatedly.

Consider the repetitious nature of nearly everyone's normal routine. You eat, you sleep, you work, you brush your teeth (regularly, I hope) - for better or worse, these activities fill a good portion of our days. They may even be enjoyable - but often they tend to blend together from one day to the next. Sure - you may have a great meal, a productive day at work or a particularly satisfying bowel movement - but how much different is the experience from the one last week or last year?

I submit that our minds, in effect, lump these similar experiences together - so that as we grow older, we feel a sense that time has passed more quickly.

Before I close for today, consider one more idea: What things do you tend to remember vividly? The first time you did something, the last time you did that same thing, an intense experience you had, the unique or extreme experiences of your life. And for many of us, I think the initial impressions of an experience are the most intense and long-lasting (your first kiss, your first date, your first breakup). These things all happen when we are relatively young - and so time may not seem to pass as quickly - for there are fewer experiences that can be compressed. When you're a kid, it takes FOREVER for Christmas to get here.

But not anymore.

To some of you my theory may seem to be pretty depressing. But if I'm right - and we now understand how this whole "experiencing time" thing works - we may be able to do something about it.

I plan to talk about that tomorrow.

Take care.

*apologies to Chrissy Hynde

** I think individual experiences may seem to slow down or speed up time in a different way and for different reasons. But that's another post entirely.


Middle Aged Woman said...

Juvenile response: Heh. My bowel movements seem to 'lump' together.

Grown-up, geeky response: Michael Crichton does an excellent explanation of data compression in Timeline.

Jim Styro said...

That's good feedback, Stu-plum

Captain Dumbass said...

I don't know if you've ever watched Terminator:Sarah Connor Chronicles, but in the last episode a terminator who is being reprogrammed is commenting on the stunning computational power of the human brain and it's almost limitless storage capacity. He observed that the brain had one major flaw, it can't be downloaded once the body dies.

Which may not being entirely on subject with data compression, but it was a cool idea.

Jim Styro said...

Capt: I haven't seen any of the SCC - but I am a fan of the Terminator films. Obviously, the terminators have not learned how to do a Vulcan mind-meld. I probably have the terminology wrong (you know, that thing Spock did to McCoy just before he croaked in "Wrath of Khan"!) - but MAW will love having an opportunity to correct me.