By Emily Erickson
I’ve recently become aware that my 30th birthday is later this year; aware in the same kind of way as a far-off vacation that starts taking up more space in your brain as it grows closer. Like purchasing plane tickets and crafting to-do lists is a different version of awareness than the more concrete bag-packing and gas tank-filling, the epiphany of an impending next decade shifted into place and has since been subtly coloring my perspective.
New decades are always attached to their own set of feelings, like the transition from 9 to 10 years old being marked by an overwhelming sense of becoming — in my case, becoming a person with my own ideas, dreams, preferences and ways of navigating my little life. I didn’t know who I was, but I knew I loved chocolate ice cream, reading books and running across the schoolyard, and hated when my parents shouted at one another. Hitting double-digits meant that I’d get to spend the next 10 years becoming — being shaped by my environment and following my internal compass closer to the things that brought me joy.
The transition into my 20s was intertwined with the feeling of invincibility. I knew death could affect the people closest to me, and that loss of life didn’t discriminate between the healthy, sick or young. But instead of applying that knowledge to my own mortality, I allowed it to fuel an unshakable clarity on how I wanted to live. I wasn’t yet self-assured, but I was sure that I wanted to travel to foreign places, move to mountain towns and desert towns, strike up conversations with strangers and live my life in a way that soaked up the world around me, no matter the consequences.
My awareness of this next approaching decade began with noticing the fine lines around my eyes that weren’t quite smoothing out after I stopped laughing or squinting at the sun. It was feeling a bit disconnected from conversations with people in their young 20s, not having a desire to download TikTok, using and abusing WebMD, and reading articles about side-parts and skinny jeans, and how I was getting left behind.
Among all the subtle markers that were adding up to the beginning of another transition was one podcast episode, and how I just couldn’t seem to shake what it inspired in me.
It was a RadioLab episode about falling, and the phenomena of time seeming to slow down in the moments when we’re forced to confront our own death. Jad Abumrad and his team of researchers struck out to study what is actually happening in our brains during near-death, or simulated near-death experiences — when seconds or fractions of seconds seem to stretch out or slow down in a “slow-motion-like” effect.
After testing out multiple theories, they landed on one about memory and our brain’s natural tendency to sift through the information it receives in an attempt to keep only what is necessary and important for learning or shaping future behavior. In a normal-stakes environment, our brain only commits bits and pieces of sensory input to memory, setting a baseline level of awareness as it relates to the time it takes to collect that information.
In a high-stakes environment, like being in a car accident or bungee jumping off a bridge, our brains stop sifting, keeping and committing to memory all of the information it is receiving. After the fact, in an attempt to reconcile the amount of information it received and stored into memory, our brains conclude that more time must have passed in order to account for all of that input. Because we’re consumed with unimpeded and undivided awareness of our surroundings in these moments, we seemingly get more time out of our time.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been applying this concept, albeit metaphorically, to the impending transition into my 30s, attaching the feeling of possibility to my next decade. By committing to being present in my life, and by continuously paying close attention to and engaging with my surroundings, I get to expand my experience of time.
I may no longer be blindly becoming or under the guise of invincibility, but I know that possibility begins when a perspective shifts into place, and that I can bend and stretch my perception of a moment, a day or a decade by wholeheartedly participating in them.
Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.
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