Have you ever noticed that time seems to speed up as you get older?
An afternoon could stretch on without end, in childhood, and a summer could be almost a lifetime. In childhood, so it seemed, and so it seems now, time was a slow, steady, tick tock.
But not so in adult time. We are racing forward into the future so fast that it sometimes seems as if our days are over before they have really begun.
If only we could slow time down! To do so would be to extend our lives. Not by making them objectively longer, in the sense of measurable clock time, but by lengthening out and thickening up the present.
Even if you don't want to live forever, who wants to feel as if they are trapped on a runaway bus lurching out of control into the future?
Time is relative, said Albert Einstein; it slows down as you speed up (at last relative to an outside observer). He might have been right about clock time, but he is exactly wrong, it seems, when it comes to lived time. Our time speeds up — and it speeds up because we are moving faster (at least relatively).
An analogy may help to see this: Grownups don't live in the time of the metronome, one beat following another following another. Our lives unfold at the stratum of the melody. And melodies integrate over time, referring always now to what has happened and to what is happening, that is, to what will happen. Melodies have direction and their conclusions are foretold at the outset. Melodic life, if you will, is life whose future is already alive in the present. Melody in this way collapses time. Melody robs us of the fullness of time.
What plays the role of melody for us — to try to cash out the analogy — is the project. Our lives are organized by projects, by the things we do, the tasks and actives and undertakings, at different scales of time, that organize our lives. We don't count the seconds of our lives, we count the projects — going to work, making dinner, getting the car tuned-up, or, on a grander scale, marriage, parenthood, one's employment — not the seconds over which they range. A project has a beginning, a middle and an end, generally, and as in the case of the melody, the end is always already foretold at the start. Not in the sense that you know the future. But in the sense that projects are or tend to be ballistic: ball goes up, and the manner of its descent is fixed.
Another way this comes out is in our tendency to think of a life as like a narrative. Stories have endings. And so we think of a life as, like a story, passing through stages until the final chapter.
If this is right, then it is obvious what we need to do to regain the present: slow down. We need to turn off the melody. Interrupt the projects. Leave the job. Abandon your family. Change it up.
But at what cost?
Who wants to live without melody? Who wants to be stuck in the metronome? The projects that organize our lives are just what give our lives value. (I am reminded of a study that came out some years ago that showed that mice fed a near starvation diet lived longer than mice fed a normal diet. Would you want to live longer if the price were near starvation?)
Perhaps there is another way. Change doesn't have to be destructive to be productively disruptive. Learning a new language, making new friends, travel, play, new hobbies, these are all ways in which we might change our lives to let us free ourselves from the ballistic rise and fall of our projects.
In fact, as the neuroscientist Michael Merzenich has been arguing for some time now, activities and undertakings of this sort can have the effect of rejuvenating the brain by enabling, or requiring, the brain plastically to reorganize itself. Merzenich is careful to emphasize that only activities earnestly undertaken, only new skills or activities that you really care about and work at, are going to have beneficial effects on your brain. This brings us back to the fact that it is the reorganization of our lives that is key, for that is what, in turn, reorganizes our brains and, if I am right, enables us to recover the present.
Engaging with art is another way to stave off time's gravity and to recover a rich, extended present.
Art is warehoused all around us, in museums and galleries, or in the form of digital storage. It sits there and it harbors a most magical property. Turn it on, engage it, and it can transform your life and reorganize your mind (and brain!). Art can change how you see and think. It can reorient you. But not just for the price of admission. It isn't a matter of walking through the gallery or pressing the play button. You need to study, look, listen, think, question. Not merely see or hear. And this isn't easy. It isn't easier than learning a new language. And it requires not only that we engage with art, but also that we engage with the communities of people who devote themselves to art and to its challenges and rewards.
Art can do all this or, rather, we can do all this with art. Art affords us an opportunity to step outside the projects that, in a way, hold us captive. A life with art is a life unbound.
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe