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THE HUMAN CONDITION / OUR CHANGING CLOCKS : Where Does the Time Go?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Deidre Spelliscy Gifford recalls her childhood stays at summer camp as seemingly lasting eons, even though they actually spanned just a week.

“I would wait for letters and packages (from home), and it took forever,” says Gifford, 33, a West Los Angeles obstetrician-gynecologist. “I’d get mad if a package took too long.”

Looking back, she realizes her parents “must have taken us to the bus and then gone straight to the post office.”

And now, of course, a week barely registers a blip on her mental calendar.

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What made time seem to speed up?

Experts offer a gamut of theories--psychological, biological and metaphysical--but “there are no right answers,” says Tom Rusk, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego. “By and large, this has been a field for philosophers.”

But Rusk and others, drawing on such diverse sources as Albert Einstein and the novel “Catch-22,” list several factors that influence perceptions of time.

One of the most obvious involves simple arithmetic. If a year equals one-third of a person’s lifetime (at age 3) instead of one-thirtieth (at age 30), it feels much longer.

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But throw that same 30-year-old into jail and the arithmetic theory fizzles.

The longest years of Henry Ketting Olivier’s life, the 78-year-old Long Beach man says, were as an adult when he was a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II. Lack of freedom makes time crawl, Rusk agrees, and not just for those who are literally behind bars.

People can feel imprisoned anywhere, he says: “If you feel controlled and if you feel bored and if you’re in pain, then, my God, time seems to go slowly.”

But the mind can play tricks. Even when single days seem boring and interminable, longer stretches of time can still zoom by.

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Whenever Gifford worked 24-hour shifts as a medical intern, it felt at day’s end as if decades had passed, she says: “I couldn’t remember where I parked my car; I couldn’t even remember driving to work.”

Yet when she paused to reflect on a month or year of such schedules, she couldn’t figure out where the time went.

Likewise for Pam Verdone of Richmond, Va., a teacher who is taking a break from her career to raise two children. “When I’m home by myself with these two kids, it seems like 6 p.m. (when her husband returns from work) will never come,” she says. “Then I look at the clock and not only is it 5:45, but it’s Friday.”

Rusk explains the apparent paradox: Going through a period of time is dramatically different from simply remembering it. Stop a harried doctor or mother in the middle of a day and she’ll say the hours are dragging, Rusk says. But at the end of a month, all her experiences were similar, so they are mentally filed in the same drawer and the days blend.

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Or the years. A 30-something Escondido journalist says his childhood seems longer because time was marked by school and other milestones. But don’t ask him about his 20s. It’s a blur from 26 onward, he says: “I was married when I was 29, but I don’t remember what else I did that year.”

Anticipation also colors time perception. Consider Christmas.

“When you’re little, you have nothing to do but wait for that time to come to you,” observes Robert Lynn, 69, of Orange. “When you’re older, you dread Christmas because you have to go out and buy all the damn stuff, and the next thing you know, it’s on top of you.”

Children are more apt to live for the future, says Rusk, and that can bring time to a standstill. Verdone’s son, for example, won’t turn 3 for a couple of months, but he asks several times a week if it’s his birthday. When his mother showed him how far away it was on a calendar, he asked, “Can’t we just skip those pages?”

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Children also see most of the world around them as new, a chief ingredient in slowing time, Rusk says. When the mind can’t easily compare a new experience to an old one, the experience seems to last longer. By adulthood, the brain can pretty much digest the world on cruise-control, and time accelerates.

That’s why Zen Buddhists encourage people to perform tasks with the opposite hand from which they’re accustomed, Rusk says: “If I’m buttering bread in a brand new way, it slows time down.”

Not everyone is convinced that mind games can check time’s swiftness. Some observers suspect that biological factors also affect the sense of time.

Is it possible, for example, that because humans used to live only 30 or 40 years, time quickens after that threshold is crossed?

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Robert Levine, psychology department chairman at Cal State Fresno, says time’s hastening has an organic cause: As people age, their bodies slow down internally, and time seems faster by comparison.

But biology doesn’t deter those who seek to readjust their mental clocks.

In the book “Catch-22,” a character named Dunbar tries to make his life as boring and miserable as possible so it will seem to be lasting forever. It’s sort of a reverse take on the maxim: “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Which presents another paradox.

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Although pleasure indeed cranks up the speed of time, it also slows it down, Rusk says. Again, the explanation is found in the difference between experiencing an event and recalling it later. An exciting, variety-filled day might seem to whip by while it’s happening, but afterward it feels like three days instead of one, Rusk says.

Gifford, the doctor, notices a similar sensation when traveling. If she catches a morning flight from LAX to New York, takes a cab into Manhattan and takes in dinner and a show, it feels as if several days, not 12 hours, have passed since she left California. “When you go across space, the time seems longer,” she says.

Here the discussion of time veers into another dimension. “It’s an Einsteinian thing,” says Rusk, referring to the physicist whose theory of relativity says time and space are inextricably linked. “The greater the distance we perceive we’ve gone, the longer time seems.”

In reality, time does slow down aboard an airplane, but it takes a supersensitive atomic clock to detect the change. According to Einstein, a person would have to reach a velocity near the speed of light (186,281.7 miles a second) before time would slow dramatically. And that’s unlikely, especially on the Santa Ana Freeway at rush hour.

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Shane Huber, 33, of Orange, has a simpler method for waylaying time: He adds two years to his age. “You start thinking of yourself as 35 and you feel pretty good,” he says. And being the same age for two extra years makes the time pass more slowly.”

Others see children as the key to reversing time’s pace. Rusk says being around youngsters can rekindle a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world, which slows time. But, he says, that only goes so far: “There are limits to empathy. I don’t think you can eliminate your own storehouse of experiences.”

Huber’s wife, Susen, a schoolteacher and mother of four, agrees: “You don’t really start over, but you’re back in touch with stuff that you lost as you got older. . . . My aging doesn’t seem as acute.”

In contrast, Rusk, 53, says his aging didn’t slow until his children were grown and gone. As one of his friends puts it: “Having kids around is like getting a telegram every five minutes that your life has changed.” Now that the house is empty, Rusk says, “I’m not getting old as fast because not as much is changing in front of my eyes.”

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Others get thrown off the time track under less fortunate circumstances. An Orange County woman says time stood still in the months after her husband’s death: “It’s like falling in a tunnel. There’s no ending, no beginning, no night, no morning, no noon. There’s no orientation, period.”

Obviously, the specter of death adds to the perception that time is hurtling by. Even retirement doesn’t break the momentum, says Ketting Olivier, the former prisoner of war: “Time gets faster because you can foresee what’s coming.”

However, the death factor seems to carry more weight among Americans, Rusk says. The “plastic-surgery culture” fears aging and death and thus is more desperate about the passage of time, he says.

By comparison, some other cultures look at life in terms of many generations, reincarnation and feeling part of something more eternal.

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In those places, Rusk says, a story like this wouldn’t even be written.


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