Before we start, I'd like to thank listener Stefan Novak, who made a donation to Operation Gratitude in honor of Math Mutation. Remember, you can get your name mentioned too, by donating to your favorite charity and sending me an email about it!
Now, on to today's topic. I recently celebrated my 45th birthday. It seems like the years are zipping by now-- it feels like just yesterday when I was learning to podcast, and my 3rd grader was the baby in the cover photo. This actually ties in well with the fact that I've recently been reading "Thinking in Numbers", the latest book by Daniel Tammett. You may recall the Tammett, who I've featured in several previous episodes, is known as the "Rosetta Stone" of autistic savants, as he combines the Rain Man-like mathematical talents with the social skills to live a relatively normal life, and write accessible popular books on how his mind works. This latest book is actually a collection of loosely autobiographical essays about various mathematical topics. One I found especially interesting was the discussion of how our perceptions of time change as we age.
Following up on the topic, I found a nice article online by an author named James Kenney, which I have linked in the show notes. He mentions that there is a term for this analysis of why time seems to pass by at different rates, "Psychochronometry". Extending the concept of time being experienced proportionally, he points out that we should think of years like a musical scale: in music, every time we move up one octave in pitch, we are doubling the frequency. Similarly, we should think of our lives as divided into "octaves", with each octave being perceived as roughly the equivalent subjective time as the previous one. So the times from ages 1 to 2, 2 to 4, 4 to 8, 8 to 16, 16 to 32, and 32 to 64, are each an octave, experienced as roughly equivalent to the average human.
This outlook is a bit on the bleak side though: it makes me uneasy to reflect on the fact that, barring any truly extraordinary medical advances in the next decade or two, I'm already well into the second-to-last octave of my life. Am I really speeding down a highway to old age with my foot stuck on the accelerator, and time zipping by faster and faster? Is there anything I can do to make it feel like I have more time left? Fortunately, a little research on the web reveals that there are other theories of the passage of time, which offer a little more hope.
In particular, I like the "perceptual theory", the idea that our perception of time is in proportion to the amount of new things we have perceived during a time interval. When you are a child, nearly everything is new, and you are constantly learning about the world. As we reach adulthood, we tend to settle down and get into routines, and learning or experiencing something truly new becomes increasingly rare. Under this theory, the lack of new experiences is what makes time go by too quickly. And this means there *is* something you can do about it-- if you feel like things are getting repetitive, try to arrange your life so that you continue to have new experiences.
There are many common ways to address this problem: travel, change your job, get married, have a child, or strive for the pinnacle of human achievement and start a podcast. If time or money are short, there are also simple ways to add new experiences without major changes in your life. My strong interest in imaginary and virtual worlds has been an endless source of mirth to my wife. I attend a weekly Dungeons and Dragons game, avidly follow the Fables graphic novels, exercise by jogging through random cities in Wii Streets U, and love exploring electronic realms within video games like Skyrim or Assassins Creed. You may argue that the unreality of these worlds makes them less of an "experience" than other things I could be doing-- but I think it's hard to dispute the fact that these do add moments to my life that are fundamentally different from my day-to-day routine. One might argue that a better way to gain new experiences is to spend more time travelling and go to real places, but personally I would sacrifice 100 years of life if it meant I would never have to deal with airport security again, or have to spend 6 hours scrunched into an airplane seat designed for dwarven contortionists.
So, will my varied virtual experiences lengthen my perceived life, or am I ultmately doomed by Janet's math? Find me in 50 years, and maybe I'll have a good answer. Or maybe not-- time will be passing too quickly by then for me to pay attention to silly questions.
And this has been your math mutation for today.