Is this the Secret to a Bigger Life?

Life is what we remember. Most of your life isn’t spent now; it’s spent then – in memories.

To get a bigger life, therefore, you might think we need bigger memories.

But our memories are selective. To use my favourite cycling metaphor, while you will inevitably spend most of your time going uphill – what you remember are the downhills. Our memories cut the boring stuff.

So we don’t need a bigger memory.

We need bigger time.

Time and Travel – or Time Travel?

Consider this: you spend weeks and weeks looking forward to your holiday. Time in the office seems to drag on forever. Finally you get on the plane and shoot off to a beach on Bermuda.

Lying here, with the sand between your toes, the office seems a million years away. Why is that? But your two weeks of cocktails and beaches fly by in the blinking of an eye – and suddenly you’re back in the office.

Now it’s Bermuda that seems a million years away. Did time get mixed up in the Bermuda Triangle?

A physicist might put it thus:

A displacement in space is equal to a displacement in time.*

Or, to put it another way, travel makes time bigger.

Continuity and Happening

Think back to what you were doing ten seconds ago – chances are it was the same thing you are doing now – can you remember how you were feeling then?

Doesn’t it feel weird to think about how you felt just a moment ago? I bet you weren’t really feeling much in particular, at least not until you thought about it.

That’s continuity for you.

The brain seems to have two modes: one for when things are happening and one for continuity. And the more we allow continuity to build up, the less we can pull out of it and remember. It all blends into one.

Our brains don’t bother to make a distinction between this moment reading a blog post and that moment ten seconds ago reading a blog post. In our memories it’s just going to go down as ‘read blog post’ – if that. More likely, it will just get subsumed under ‘just another day at the office’ and none of the specifics will be remembered at all.

For all your brain cares: that moment of your life simply didn’t happen.

Happening and Memory

Happenings, however, break up periods of continuity – and, in doing so, happenings also create a bigger life. Happenings mean that less of our lives get lost in the long tedium of continuity: happenings give us pegs from which to hang the memories of our lives.

For example, how many times have you placed a rogue memory with this kind of dialogue?

‘Oh, that was just before John broke his leg – yes, and not long after Fran won the three-legged race at school – hahaha!’

Travel is a kind of happening. The chronology below shows the effect of continuity and happening on life/memory:

  • Location A: continuity
  • Event 1A
  • Event 2A
  • Event 3A
    • Travel to location B: a new continuity
    • Event 1B
    • Event 2B
    • Event 3B
  • Travel to location A: resumption of continuity
  • Event 4A
  • Event 5A
  • Event 6A
      • Travel to location C: another new continuity
      • Event 1C
      • Event 2C
      • Event 3C
  • Travel to location A: resumption of continuity
  • Event 7A
  • Event 8A
  • Event 9A

Events in locations B and C are distinct and separate from the memories made in the other locations. They seem to stand out more due to the unique nature of the location in which the memories were made. It is harder to place event 5A in the logical progression of the year than 2B or 3C, for example. Although the time spent on the activities may be the same, event 5A appears smaller in life, in the memory, than event 2B.

This has serious implications for our lives. Allowing too much continuity to build up makes our lives smaller!

Breaking up this continuity is the secret to remembering more of your life and thus having, not a longer life (who really wants that, wrinkles and all?) – but a bigger life.

Happening + Bigger Time = Travel

Happenings are not always good (poor old John). They are not always desirable.

Travel, however, is a form of happening that is usually (more of less) in our control. It is also (in the form of a holiday at least) designed to make us happy. That seems to make it a particularly good sort of happening.

Furthermore, because travel creates bigger time, the power of memory associated with it is multiplied. Travel is a happening that leaves an impression on your memory disproportionate in size compared to normal life.

Think about this: despite the fact that you spent 230 days in the office last year, the moments you remember best from that year were those 14 days on a beach in Bermuda. It broke the continuity and created big time.

It made yours a bigger life.

*The incredible distances achievable by flight seem to totally fox our poor little brains. It seems literally unbelievable that we could have been at work in Croydon yesterday, when today we are sipping a Piña Colada on Elbow Beech.

You can test this out. How much travel is needed to blow the mind. Walk down the street and look back at the hundred or so metres you’ve travelled and ask yourself if you can remember what it was like to be you back then. What about a longer walk? I think the brain starts to break up its continuity when the distances become unobservable. A trip of twenty miles or more definitely has the ability to make the brain marvel – when you think about it.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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