The Passage of Time

Aileen After Christmas Ireland experienced what is known popularly as “The Big Freeze”. Unused to temperatures dropping below zero for extended periods, the countries transport system ground to a halt. We didn’t have enough snow ploughs or grit. My flatmates and I were supposed to flying to the sunny Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa. Taxi’s had stopped running, so we got up at 3 am, and slowly drove to the airport, hoping it would be open once we arrived. The city streets were empty. We reached the motorway, which seemed to be clear of ice and picked up speed. Big mistake. In an instant, the car began to skid. The driver tried to keep it moving forward. It skidded far to the left, to the right, before turning fully around, leaving us facing in the opposite direction, moving backwards at speed along the road. Months later, the event is still crystal clear in my mind. I remember thinking ‘there is nothing I can do’, ‘we are going to crash’, ‘This is just like that article in the New York Times, about how brain’s processing ability speeds up in times of crisis, giving the impression of time slowing down. Isn’t it strange, how long this seems to be taking’.

After what seemed to be an age, but was probably no more than minutes, we did crash. Luckily we hit a number of traffic cones that slowed our progress as we drove over them, finally coming to a stop just before the concrete side of the road. I hold traffic cones in the highest respect now (hours later we were sitting by a pool in Lanzarote, thinking, this is heaven, did we die?).

Here’s the article. It’s a fascinating read about how our sense of time passing is influenced by the events in our lives. When I interviewed people for the Life History and Social Change project, I noticed that many gave a very vivid detailed description of their wedding day, but their entire middle age would be mentioned in an instant. My experience in the car showed that when intense events occur perceptions of time slow down such that each moment is richly remembered. The researchers looked at the other side of the coin, how in the absence of events, our sense of time passing stops, hence it feels like only yesterday that I lost my learner driving license (in fact, I just discovered it expired in 2008 - but that dear reader is another story).

The original research can be found here