Why Time Seems to Speed Up as We Get Older: What the Research Says

No mat­ter what age we’ve attained, we can think back to child­hood and feel just how ago­niz­ing­ly long it then took for Christ­mas to come, for the school day to end, for a tray of cook­ies to come out of the oven. Mys­te­ri­ous as this appar­ent change in the speed of time may at first seem, it actu­al­ly makes a kind of intu­itive sense: one day rep­re­sents, at the age of fifty, a tenth of the pro­por­tion of the time we’ve expe­ri­enced so far than it does at the age of five. As our time­line length­ens, our per­cep­tion of cer­tain fixed units on that time­line — a minute, a year, a decade — short­ens.

But there are oth­er fac­tors in play as well. “Indi­vid­ual per­cep­tions of time are strong­ly influ­enced by our lev­el of focus, phys­i­cal state and mood,” write The Inde­pen­dent’s Muire­ann Irish and Claire O’Callaghan. “Just as ‘a watched pot nev­er boils,’ when we are con­cen­trat­ing on an event, time occa­sion­al­ly appears to pass more slow­ly than usu­al. This is also the case when we’re bored; time can seem to drag end­less­ly.” This might well con­tribute to the child­hood per­cep­tion of slow time, since kids have to spend so many of their days in the class­room, an envi­ron­ment that strikes most of them as express­ly designed to induce bore­dom.

In addi­tion, accord­ing to Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can, “our brain encodes new expe­ri­ences, but not famil­iar ones, into mem­o­ry, and our ret­ro­spec­tive judg­ment of time is based on how many new mem­o­ries we cre­ate over a cer­tain peri­od. In oth­er words, the more new mem­o­ries we build on a week­end get­away, the longer that trip will seem in hind­sight.” The rel­a­tive­ly high fre­quen­cy of dis­tinc­tive mem­o­ries cre­at­ed ear­li­er in life and low fre­quen­cy of dis­tinc­tive mem­o­ries cre­at­ed lat­er in life means that “our ear­ly years tend to be rel­a­tive­ly over­rep­re­sent­ed in our auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal mem­o­ry and, on reflec­tion, seem to have last­ed longer.”

You can see some of the ideas and the­o­ries behind this almost uni­ver­sal­ly agreed-on sense that time speeds up as we grow old­er in the video from the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Chan­nel show Brain Games above. It also intro­duces a few new ones into the mix, con­nect­ing them all with how much ener­gy the brain uses to record which kinds of expe­ri­ences, sug­gest­ing that even a sense as fun­da­men­tal as the one we use to mark time has a great deal more com­plex­i­ty to it than we under­stand. Ulti­mate­ly, though, it all comes back to the words of no less a thinker on rel­a­tiv­i­ty than Albert Ein­stein: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pret­ty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Clocks Changed Human­i­ty For­ev­er, Mak­ing Us Mas­ters and Slaves of Time

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

The Secret Pow­ers of Time

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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