Meaning, Memory & Perception of Time - Torah Portion Vayetze

Jacob offers to work for Laban, for the privilege of marrying his daughter Rachel. The Torah says after the fact:
"Jacob worked seven years for Rachel, but they seemed in his eyes like a few days, in his love for her." (Gen 29:20)
But why did it seem so quick? Shouldn't it be the opposite? If you can't wait to be finished, and you're just counting the days, watching the clock, time can feel brutally slow. Think about sitting in school counting the minutes for class to end, or being in the hospital waiting for the doctor to come. When you're just waiting, it feels like an eternity. Like the expression goes, "A watched pot never boils." How about a "watched Rachel"?

Time-perception studies in psychology and neuroscience try to understand when and why we experience time as moving slowly or quickly. It turns out that "slow-moving" time is in fact a more accurate assessment of clock time. It's when we perceive "fast-moving" time that we tend to make cognitive distortions. The "time-flying" effect can be brought on by a number of factors, chief among them:

  • Mental engagement - as opposed to boredom
  • Goal-orientation - active pursuit of a goal 
  • Motivation - greater sense of purpose

For Jacob, he certainly had a sense of purpose, and a goal. And it could be that he was engaged in his work, "in the zone," i.e. not bored. Therefore it all went by very quickly.

But there's another interesting research finding, which is that periods of boredom, despite feeling longer at the time, actually seem shorter in retrospect. And times of intense engagement, even though they go by quickly, seem longer in retrospect. The theory is that our after-the-fact ability to calculate time duration is based on the amount of memories we have to draw from. The "memory-scarce" (bored) period has less to build on, so it seems shorter that it was, while the "memory-packed" period has tons to build on, so it seems longer than it was.

Which feels accurate, to me at least. When I think about certain memory-packed, formative times in my own life, which seem so "huge" in their importance, I'm often struck by how little actual calendar time they took up.

So... Does that mean Jacob was actually bored out of his mind for 7 years, and it just seemed short in retrospect, for lack of memories? I don't think so. Clearly Jacob's "love for" Rachel is the focus, as far as the Torah is concerned.

Emotional investment, meaningfulness and sense of purpose speed up our perception of time, and they help us to encode, retain, and recall memories.

In other words, the greater our emotional attachment to the people, events, and information (i.e. knowledge we're exposed to) in our lives, the richer and broader our tapestry of memory will be. So we need more love. More care (as opposed to apathy). More intimacy and attachment. Greater personal significance and relevance. Probably more "in-the-moment-ness."

How do we accomplish this? Just off the top of my head... Maybe more "real" time getting to know the people we love? More depth and less skimming? More thinking about the "why" (i.e. relevance) rather than just the "what" or the "how"? And maybe (note to self)... Less time on our phones?

Suggestions are welcome!