Sally Engelhart | The fastest and best four years
Farewell Column | It’s a sad truth that the best times fly by
April 25, 2012, 1:14 am · Updated April 25, 2012, 3:03 am·
As I write my last ever Daily Pennsylvanian article, it dawns on me that I’ve been writing to you as Scientifically Blonde for three whole years.
I’ve worked with four different editors, countless fellow columnists and written for the six classes of 2010 to 2015.
And still, it feels like mere weeks ago — not years — that I saw my first column in print.
My time at Penn has gone by in a blink.
We all know from experience that the perception of time passing is not constant. Just think about how quickly the hour of an exam can fly by or how slowly an hour-lecture can.
But what makes time race by on some occasions and drag on forever at others? For my last time, I looked towards the scientific literature to bring you the answer.
There’s definitely truth to the adage, “time flies when you’re having fun.” From the shock of the house lights coming on at Recess Lounge (what, it’s 2:30 already?) to the way that time can seem to jump from Kewder Tuesday to a hangover Sunday morning, this saying has definitely characterized my time at Penn.
But what about how the hours seem to disappear when you miserably cram in Van Pelt for tomorrow’s final? How do you explain the fact that sometimes, when you’re not having fun at all, time still seems to fly?
Simon Grondin, a researcher on time perception at the Laval University, explains that a better phrase to capture this phenomenon is, “time flies when you do not pay attention to it.”
In other words, when you pay attention to how long an event is taking, you perceive it as taking longer. Case in point, a watched pot never boils (or, a three hour seminar never ends).
The thinking here is that when you’re not paying attention to time, your brain simply perceives less of it. So, if your mental energy is devoted to doing something other than counting passing time, your brain thinks time is moving faster.
But this only looks at how we judge time passing in the moment. Another important part of time perception is how long we perceive events to be when we think about them retrospectively. Think back to spring break: was it the shortest vacation ever, or did it seem to last forever?
According Claudia Hammond, author of Time Warped, our perception of the length of past events depends on how many distinct memories we accumulated during that time.
When you live a life of routine, you don’t make many distinct memories and months can seem to slip right through your hands. When you shake it up and have new experiences, you make a lot more memories and time seems to last much longer than it did.
Going through each of the 37 articles that I wrote during my career at the DP brings back a lot of lost memories and helps me feel just how long and full my years at Penn have been.
Since September 2009, I’ve taught you that beer goggles have a scientific basis (so don’t beat yourself up about Saturday night), that junk food can affect your GPA before it affects your BMI and that taking Airborne when you’re sick is a bad idea.
I’ve taught you how to use hands-only CPR to save a life, why soda is your waistline’s number-one enemy and that creating a computer engineer Barbie won’t change the gender imbalance in the hard sciences.
When I start to think about each individual memory, it can feel like I’ve been at Penn for a lifetime. But this feeling only lasts a moment. It’s still incredibly hard to acknowledge that in just a few days, my time here will be over. These have been the best four years of my life and they’ve raced by in a flash.
Part of me wants to tell you to slow down your time at Penn — to pay attention to the passing of days, weeks and months and turn your minutes into hours. But if you were constantly counting time, you wouldn’t be doing it right.
Fun is the ultimate distraction and Penn is full of it. Considering that time flies when you don’t pay attention to it, it’s no coincidence that my best four years also felt like the shortest.
It’s the ultimate catch-22 and it sucks. Having a blast during your time at Penn goes hand in hand with your time here racing by.
Sally Engelhart is a College senior from Toronto. She has appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian as Scientifically Blonde for the last three years. Sally is taking the year to travel and plans to go to medical school next fall. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.