Douwe Draaisma

Why life speeds up as you get older

As we get older we tend to look back and compare our past life with our present one. Much scientific work has been done on memory in the sense of learning but not so much on how people remember important events in their lives. This book attempts to redress the balance.

Experiments and unreliable memories

It isn't really surprising that experiments on learning are much more common than those on autobiographical memory. Suppose you wanted to know about people having experiences which remind them of something in their childhood. There are several ways you could do this. You could interview them, and ask if they have had such experiences recently. It would be better though to ask them to keep a diary for a period of time, and record the experiences when they had them. However, even this misses out something - what actually happened in their childhood. To record this accurately is very difficult, and this is why such experiments are not carried out very often. But some have been done, with surprising results. You know how you always remember exactly where you were when you heard about a great disaster, or the death of a very famous person. Draaisma tells us of experiments where such memories several years after the event differ substantially from those recorded on the day of the event. He also has a chapter on John Demjanjuk, who, according to the testimony of many witnesses, was positively identified as a notorious guard at the Treblinka death camp. But subsequent events showed that even this amount of evidence could not be relied on.

Strange memories

Quite a bit of the book is on unusual aspects of memory. There is the case of Sherashevsky, who had what we call a 'photographic' memory, maybe a mixed blessing as is shown by the case of J. L. Borges fictional character Funes the Memorious. Various types of amnesia are looked at - from the increasing tendency to forget things as we get older, to people who have lost the ability to form new memories, and start each day afresh. There is a long chapter on the phenomenon of Déjà vu. Near the end of the book is a chapter on the idea that your life flashes before you when you are facing death. Several examples of this are given, in particular that of the geologist Albert Heim who had a near-fatal fall in the mountains. Draaisma's displays knowledge of such a wide variety of subjects, and this results in an interesting and informative read.

Why life speeds up as you get older

The problem of speeding up/slowing down of time occurs in the 'Twin paradox' of relativity. One twin stays still - that is takes a direct path through spacetime, while the other takes an indirect path. We talk of time slowing down for the second twin - which fits in with the indirect path being longer - WRONG. In fact the time elapsed for the second twin is shorter.
This is the title of chapter 14 as well as of the whole book. Rather than being the centrepiece, I thought it was the weakest part of the book, and if this is what you are reading the book for then I think that you might be disappointed. The 'obvious' explanation is given that a year is a greater proportion of the life of a 6 year old than a 60 year old but the phenomenon doesn't seem to be examined in depth. Draaisma makes the point that whether we talk about time speeding up we have to be clear whether it is subjective time going faster than objective time or vice versa, and comments on how a boring time will seem to drag when it happens but not take up much space in later memories. However sometimes this discussion seems to be going round in circles. The book has been translated from Dutch, and something might have been lost in translation, but I don't think that this is the case - in general the translation is excellent, and you don't notice that the book was originally in a different language (Although you will notice that a substantial proportion of the examples in the book come from the Netherlands and surrounding countries).

Autobiographical memory

It seems clear from reading the book is that Draaisma's real interest is not so much the apparent speed of the flow of time, but rather that of reminiscing about our younger days as we get older - how much and what do we remember, and do we get it right. The first few chapters of the book are concerned with such and the idea of recording a life, or looking back is the subject of chapters throughout the book. There is a long chapter on the Autobiografie (1778-1854) of Willem van den Hull, which looks at how much he recorded from each year of his life, and what he considered important. I found this the most interesting part of the book - Draaisma's skill seems to be taking a longer story and summarising and analysing it in a single chapter.


When I think of subjective flow of time and how it changes then I can think of lots of ideas which could be put into a book - enough to fill one. However, this isn't such a book and I would recommend you to look look elsewhere if that's what you want . On the other hand if you have a interest in memory and want to find out about autobiographical memory in particular, then is well worth reading. I wouldn't tip it to win the Aventis prize, as I feel that it is more of a general interest book rather than specifically stimulating an interest in science. However it is well written, and is easy to read - no technical knowledge is required. Memories are something we can all relate to, and so I would see this book as appealing to a wide audience.