Why Time Seems to Fly By As You Get Older, and How to Slow It Down: A Scientific Explanation by Neuroscientist David Eagleman

The Bud­dha, it’s said, strug­gled might­i­ly with three specters of adulthood—aging, sick­ness, and death—when reflec­tions on mor­tal­i­ty harshed his hedo­nis­tic life as a prince. His “intox­i­ca­tion with life entire­ly dropped away,” the sto­ries say, when he reflect­ed on its pass­ing. Noth­ing cured his fatal unease until a mem­o­ry from child­hood arose unbid­den: of stop­ping time by qui­et­ly sit­ting under a rose-apple tree.

In anoth­er ver­sion of this sto­ry, Mar­cel Proust dis­cov­ered time­less­ness baked in a cook­ie. His potent mem­o­ries of madeleines also came from child­hood. As he recalled “the taste of tea and cake,” he writes, “at once the vicis­si­tudes of life had become indif­fer­ent to me, its dis­as­ters innocu­ous, its brevi­ty illu­so­ry …. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, acci­den­tal, mor­tal.”

Neu­ro­sci­en­tist David Eagle­man also invokes a child­hood mem­o­ry in his dis­cus­sion of time and aging, in the BBC video above. It is also a mem­o­ry res­o­nant with a remark­able phys­i­cal detail: red brick pave­ment hurtling toward him as he falls from the roof of a house, expe­ri­enc­ing what must have been a ter­ri­fy­ing descent in slow motion. Quite a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence from com­muning with trees and eat­ing tea cakes, but maybe the con­tent of a child­hood mem­o­ry is irrel­e­vant to its tem­po­ral dimen­sions.

What we can all remem­ber is that along with impa­tience and dis­tractibil­i­ty, child­hood seems rich with care­free, absorp­tive lan­guor (or moments of slow-motion pan­ic). Psy­chol­o­gists have indeed shown in sev­er­al stud­ies that adults, espe­cial­ly those over the age of 40, per­ceive time as mov­ing faster than it did when they were chil­dren. Why?

Because time is a “psy­cho­log­i­cal con­struct,” says Eagle­man, and can vary not just between ages and cul­tures, but also between indi­vid­ual con­scious­ness­es. “It can be dif­fer­ent in your head and my head,” he says. “Your brain is locked in silence and dark­ness inside the vault of your skull.” In order to “fig­ure out what’s going on out­side,” it’s got to do “a lot of edit­ing tricks.” One trick is to con­vince us that we’re liv­ing in the moment, when the moment hap­pened half a sec­ond in the past.

But we can notice that gap when we’re faced with nov­el­ty, because the brain has to work hard­er to process new infor­ma­tion, and it cre­ates thick­er descrip­tions in the mem­o­ry. All of this addi­tion­al pro­cess­ing, Eagle­man says, seems to take more time, so we per­ceive new expe­ri­ences as hap­pen­ing in a kind of slow motion (or remem­ber them that way). That includes so many expe­ri­ences in our child­hood as well as emer­gency sit­u­a­tions in which we have to nav­i­gate a chal­leng­ing new real­i­ty very quick­ly.

As writer Charles Bukows­ki once said, “as you live many years, things take on a repeat…. You keep see­ing the same thing over and over again.” The brain can coast on famil­iar­i­ty and expend lit­tle ener­gy gen­er­at­ing per­cep­tion. We retain few­er detailed mem­o­ries of recent events, and they seem to have flown by us. The rem­e­dy, says Eagle­man, is to seek nov­el­ty. (You thought he was going to say “mind­ful­ness”?) Wear your watch on a dif­fer­ent wrist, change the way you brush your teeth….

Mun­dane exam­ples, but the point remains: we need new and var­ied expe­ri­ences to slow our sense of time. Rou­tine lack of nov­el­ty in adult­hood may be the pri­ma­ry rea­son that “our ear­ly years,” write psy­chol­o­gists James Broad­way and Brit­taney San­doval write at Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can,“tend to be rel­a­tive­ly over­rep­re­sent­ed in our auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal mem­o­ry and, on reflec­tion, seem to have last­ed longer.”

They can also, for that rea­son, seem all the sweet­er. But nos­tal­gia, how­ev­er tempt­ing, can’t take the place of going new places, meet­ing new peo­ple, read­ing new books, hear­ing new music, see­ing new films, and so on and so forth—and there­by effec­tive­ly slow­ing down time.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Secret Pow­ers of Time

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

How to Read Many More Books in a Year: Watch a Short Doc­u­men­tary Fea­tur­ing Some of the World’s Most Beau­ti­ful Book­stores

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Dave says:

    Here’s my the­o­ry:
    When we were 5 years old and it was a week from Christ­mas, how long did each day seem to take? For­ev­er. Right?
    Now as an adult of what ever age, how long does the same day seem to take, a week from Christ­mas?
    Obvi­ous­ly the days seem to go faster the old­er we are. The rea­son is that, when we are five, each day takes up a big­ger per­cent­age of our life.
    The old­er we get each day is a small­er per­cent­age of our life. So a day, to an old­er per­son, seems to go faster. Even though the time of each day nev­er changes.

  • virginia says:

    Ill try that…at almost 69..time SEEMS to fly by much quicker…:-Oh!

  • CC says:

    So…the solu­tion is to seek out novelty…that’s it. Right. No won­der the world is in the state it is real­ly, because the search for nov­el­ty dri­ves on a large part, if not all, of the destruc­tion that goes on in the world: the con­stant air trav­el and the fash­ion indus­try are just two exam­ples of this search for nov­el­ty that goes on in the name of fill­ing our exis­ten­tial void. Bad, dis­pos­able pop music and fic­tion, are anoth­er two minor exam­ples.

    Dud advice.

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