the baby in the mirror

Is he nearly here yet?

Isaac can’t wait. Today is Christmas Eve, which means that tonight Santa Claus will come down the chimney and ‘drink some of that special wine that he likes’.

‘Single malt whisky,’ I correct him.
‘I’m so excited,’ he says. ‘I want him to come now.’
I wrote about children’s perception of time in the book. In the chapter entitled ‘The Young Doctor Who’, I describe some experiments conducted by my colleague Teresa McCormack. Children were shown a picture of an owl called Barney and listened to the sound Barney made (a tone lasting half a second). They then heard some sounds (each of differing lengths) made by other owls, followed by some test trials in which they had to judge whether the sound they were hearing was Barney’s sound (the half-second one):

Five-year-olds (the youngest children tested so far) tend to claim that sounds shorter than half a second are Barney’s sound: that is, children remember the tone as being shorter than it was in reality. It is as though their own internal clocks are running too fast, causing them to judge that time is passing more quickly than it really is. Those children who pester their parents with pleas of ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ may simply have speeded-up body clocks. Appealing to concrete intervals measured in conventional units of time (‘We’ll be there in half an hour’) is no solution, since a five-year-old’s half an hour is quite a bit shorter than that of the person behind the wheel.

The historian of psychology Douwe Draaisma also considers some distortions of time perception, but focusing on the other end of the life span. In his book Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older (see the books carousel at the bottom of this page), he considers how the pressures on time perception in old age might work in the opposite direction. The wheels that measure time turn more slowly (perhaps because of a reduced rate of metabolism), and so the years fly by.
Draaisma also quotes that other great psychologist of time, Marcel Proust. In The Guermantes Way, Marcel can think of nothing other than his forthcoming appointment with Mme de Stermaria:

For as a general rule, the shorter the interval is that separates us from our planned objective, the longer it seems to us, because we apply to it a more minute scale of measurement, or simply because it occurs to us to measure it at all.

So it is with Isaac and Santa. If he had other things to distract him, the hours might not drag so. If he were eighty years old, the day would fly by. But he is five, and in for a excitable, dragging wait. It is going to be a long day.
Happy Christmas to all. I hope you’ll drop by again in the New Year.

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