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Soul music and our perception of time

Over the last couple of years I have been doing quite a lot of coaching in the evenings with a consequence that I find myself driving back home mid to late evening. Often this is great time just to think (and erm……drive!) but sometimes I come across something on the radio that lodges in my mind and which I return to later on iPlayer. As I have lot longer commute to work these days I am looking forward to picking up on more of the fantastic content that there is on our airwaves.

One programme that I heard a segment of sometime back kept coming back to me as it combined something of interest about change with a beautiful song that I had not heard before. Its one of those BBC R4 programmes that has been around for years. Called Soul Music it takes one particular song and looks at it from a musical perspective as well as what it had meant, and means, to the people touched by it. I gate-crashed the middle of the programme and was fascinated by the story being told by a neuroscientist whose name I failed to catch. He was talking about time and memories and how we can distort our sense of the former by our perception influenced through the latter. I forgot about it for a while and then was prompted to go back to it when I heard the song on which the discussion was based on the radio more recently.

The song in question was ‘Who knows where the time goes?’ sung by Sandy Denny who wrote it when she was 19. She sung with Fairport Convention for a short while (before my time) and to be truthful the folky side of music has never been really my thing – too much cheesecloth involved! Even so this song is incredibly beautiful and her voice is extraordinary, real spine tingling stuff. The whole package is made all the more relevant given the lyric asks a question we all ask ourselves at work and home on a regular basis.

Hearing the homage of her peers towards the power of the music was interesting enough but it eventually got back to the story of the neuroscientist that had intrigued me. It transpired to be David Eagleman who is well known for both his science and his commitment to make his subject accessible. What he recalled was falling from a rooftop as a very young boy. During the fall he thought about several strategies to save himself, about how his world view looked odd as it rotated as he fell and how this must have been how Alice had felt as she tumbled down the rabbit hole. The point was not what he thought but more how much thinking he had done.

Years later at High School he came across the equation that determines the length of time for an object to fall a given distance (does the following ring any bells from those distant studies of physics?!: distance fallen = 0.5 x g x time squared where g is acceleration under gravity of 9.8 metres per second per second). From this he worked out his fall as a much younger boy would have taken a fraction of a second and yet he was conscious of thinking that would have taken many seconds. So intrigued was he by this that he set out on his journey into neuroscience specifically to understand how our thinking processes distort time, and perhaps vice versa.

The bit that interested me was about what he had to say on how change influenced memory and through memory our sense of time. He talked about how, as we all know, our childhood appeared to go on for ever and it seems so when we look back on it too. The reason is that the pace of change in childhood is almost never ending. So much of what we do is a new experience and memories are strongest of when we do something new. As adults we begin to do things by drawing associations with previous experience or by making use of patterns of behaviour that have served us well in the past. In short, we don’t do much new and as a consequence do not ‘lay down’ new memories. The absence of memories compresses our sense of that corresponding period of time when we look back when we are thinking to ourselves – where had the time gone?

David E’s conclusion on his musings was that if we wanted to slow our perception of time (at least when looking back) we need to engage in regular change to create new memories that stretch our perception of time. I absolutely up for that yet as I was scribbling this I wondered how much of this was putting a positive spin on another well known phenomenon – the mid life crisis! Not sure which is the bigger issue for me. I really do get energised by change and enjoy looking back on the memories created, I only feel mildly drawn towards Harley Davisons, and I will most certainly not be buying a cheesecloth shirt any time soon.

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