My late, 92 year-old grandmother would often remind me that time sped up as she aged. I picture her now the way she spent most of the day, sitting, as she reminds me to enjoy life to the fullest while I am “young.” After spending nearly 3 days shut in with my children to avoid the polar vortex, (seriously it was -23 today) should I believe that “time flies when you are having fun” or “time spent indoors is like watching paint dry?” In this case it would seem to come down to personal experience. To enjoy the day, my kids painted, made a tent, baked cookies, threw a pot of boiling water into the frigid air to watch it evaporate and enjoyed a number of other chaotic and “fun” experiences. Would my 2 and 6 year-old report having a lightning fast day — because they were having fun? Did the day seem painfully long to me, like watching paint dry?
A watched pot never boils. We can stand over the pot, peaking just over the rim to wait and wait for tiny bubbles to fizz to the surface. It seems to take forever! Ah, now when it is slowly boiling, the noodles can go in. The moment we turn our attention to wash the dishes though, you’ve guessed it, the water has white-capped over the side of the pot.
Memories can fill our lives at either a slow or fast boil. Research on autobiographical memory, by David Rubin out of Duke University has led to a theory called the reminiscence bump. The idea is that when we are older than 40 and think back on our personal memories there is a influx or hump. We remember more events from the coming- of-age period of life into early adulthood, compared to other periods. Rubin and many others though have found there are individual differences based on how these memories are remembered.
I think my grandma was on to something. We experience many firsts when we are young (college and relationships, love, travel, gainful employment, and securing fist-time things like cars and houses — if we are lucky). We remember these times because they stand out from all of the other pot-watching. Ageing brings routine. A settling of sorts that seems to make time fly. Days and weeks of work at the same job, no matter how prosperous or exciting, may fail to provide stand-out experiences. Grandma had settled in to a time where she would remember more life events than make NEW memory. She was fortunate to have vivid memories of her past.
We all can improve our memory by talking about events. Children who are asked meaningful questions day-to-day from their caregivers tend to have more vivid and elaborate personal memories. We often talk about our favorite vacations and funny times with family, and even though these memories may change over time, talking or reflecting is a key to recall.
My children will likely remember the unique fun of a “snow day.” And I will too — probably. Overall, we can focus on meaningful experiences to lengthen our lives. In addition to talking and thinking about events, it is important to vary our routine. Sure, for most of us that doesn’t mean travel to Hawaii, Rome, and Australia in one year or a lifetime. We all can learn new skills, walk different routes in the park, or try a different lunch spot. Distinct memories help time-stamp our days and weeks, stretching them out, instead of clumping them into sameness.
Where will memories take you?