The Science-Backed Way to Slow Down Time
If this year feels like it has flown by, there’s a solid scientific reason for that. Most of us spent it locked in our homes, doing the exact same thing day in and day out.
It turns out that our brains love this kind of predictability, neuroscientists at Brown told me. The human brain evolved to keep us in the comfort zone of a predictable routine because that improved our chances of survival in our past environments. For example, a reliable routine that helped us regularly find food kept us alive.
Even before the pandemic, our lives were rather predictable. Think: We tend to eat the same meals, watch the same TV, do the same thing at the gym (at the same time of day), and have the same conversations with family and co-workers.
To report my new book, The Comfort Crisis, I traveled 30,000 miles around the world, met with experts ranging from Harvard researchers and Icelandic geneticists to Buddhist Lamas and Special Forces soldiers, and also spent more than a month in the remote Alaskan backcountry.
The book investigates how modern comforts and conveniences are tied to some of our most pressing problems — heart disease, diabetes, depression, and a sense of purposelessness — and how engaging with a handful of evolutionary discomforts can dramatically improve our mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Leaning into predictability is another way our comfortable environment is altering our bodies and brains.
It’s an evolutionary feature that is now a sort of bug in our overly safe and predictable world. Scientists in the United Kingdom recently found that our brain has a trancelike “autopilot” or “sleepwalking” mode. Once we’ve done something over and over, our mind learns to zone out. Instead of being present and aware, we’re far more likely to be lost somewhere inside our noggin. We’re planning what we’ll eat for dinner, wondering when the new season of that one show comes out, speculating about our office frenemy’s salary. We live in a state of constant mental churn and meaningless chatter.
The fix is simple. Just learn and do new things. Simple but not easy: The brain avoids newness for the same reason it leans into predictability. We avoid new experiences because they’re often out of our comfort zone. But clumsily exiting our comfort zones offers way too many upsides to ignore. Learning new skills is also one of the best ways to enhance awareness of the present moment — no burning incense, Buddhist chants, or meditation apps involved.
New situations disengage autopilot. In newness, we’re forced into presence and focus. This is because we can’t anticipate what to expect and how to respond, breaking the trance that leads to life in fast-forward. It can even slow down our sense of time, which explains why time seemed slower when we were kids. Everything was new then and we were constantly learning.
The psychologist William James wrote about this in his 1890 work The Principles of Psychology, and a team of scientists in Israel recently confirmed James’ notion in a series of six studies. They surveyed groups doing things that were either new or old to them. “In all studies,” the scientists wrote, “we found that… people remember duration as being shorter on a routine activity than on a non-routine activity.”
This fact is particularly important in light of how popular longevity is today. In my career, I’ve written about men (it’s always men) who — in the name of living longer — have illegally acquired dangerous pharmaceuticals from overseas labs, paid thousands to have the blood of younger men pumped into their bodies, and spent millions overpaying teams of scientists who they believe will discover a fountain of youth in pill form. We take weird supplements, believe impossible things, and undergo bizarre procedures to try to push death a few days downfield.
Yet if we’re living in this autopilot, fast-forward mode, what’s the difference if we have more years? Do and learn new things and our lives can seem longer and be more packed with memories and interesting experiences. This is just one of many ways that getting out of our comfort zones can improve our lives.
If you’re interested in this topic, check out my book. A local independent bookstore in my hometown of Las Vegas is selling signed copies of The Comfort Crisis and part of their proceeds fund writing programs for underprivileged and at-risk kids and teens. Get your copy here.