Time flies, but why?

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Health / Psychology

Time is meant to be one of the few completely reliable and objective things in life. Yet it seems to slow down when we are afraid — think of a slow-motion car crash. And time flies when we’re having fun. Why is it that time seem to pass more quickly the older we get? Does our ability to assess the passing of time change as we age?

I remember vividly as a child the last few days before Christmas seemed to last an eternity. And on the morning of my 8th birthday party, it felt impossible that I would have to wait until afternoon to see my friends.

At the same time, although I feel like I “just” had my son, he now goes to school. And even though in my mind I was an undergraduate student until very recently, I am now teaching undergrads who hadn’t even been born when I started uni. What on earth is going on?

I have hopefully become wiser with age, but that doesn’t mean I’ve learned to disrupt the space-time continuum. It clearly comes down to my perception of time.

Our perceptions are influenced by lots of things

We know our perceptions of time change as a result of all sorts of factors. When we feel rejected, or depressed, time seems to slow down Experiments confirm that when we feel genuinely frightened, we also perceive time to pass slowly. But when listening to music, time seems to go faster.

As we age, people across all cultures share the feeling that time speeds up. Psychologists and philosophers have been trying to explain this phenomenon for at least 130 years.

Ever wondered why time seems to pass by faster the older you get? Image credit José Manuel Ríos Valiente [CC BY-ND 2.0] via Flickr

Ever wondered why time seems to pass by faster, the older you get? Image credit: José Manuel Ríos Valiente via Flickr.

We all feel time passes quickly

A number of studies report that in fact people of all ages feel time passes quickly. Researchers have asked people of different ages how quickly they feel time has passed during the previous week, month, year and decade. But the only clear age-related pattern is that the older the person, the more likely they are to say that the last 10 years had passed quickly. Over shorter time-scales, people of different ages have similar perceptions of the speed of time passing.

Slowing down may help

But researchers have identified that regardless of age, the more time-pressured we feel, the more likely we feel even days, weeks and months are passing too fast. This is closely linked to a perception of not having enough time to do all the things we want to do and is true of people in a variety of Western cultures.

Why do we feel like time is racing away from us?

Scientists have a number of different theories. One is called the ‘proportionality theory’. This simply argues that a year seems to pass much faster when you are 40 then when you are 4 because it constitutes only one fortieth of your life, rather than a whole quarter.

It’s about the number of new memories

Many theories have to do with how many novel experiences we have at different stages of life. The idea is the first time we experience something, our brains store lots of information about it. This results in our memories of an event being very dense. So upon thinking back to childhood experiences, the many vivid memories we have give the impression that these memories must have formed over a very long time.

The reason we remember our youth so well is that it is a period when we have more new experiences than in our thirties or forties. It’s a time for firsts — first sexual relationships, first jobs, first travel without parents, first experience of living away from home, the first time we get much real choice over the way we spend our days. Claudia Hammond

In contrast, when our days are somewhat indistinguishable from one another, when we are following the same daily routines (as is more common later in life), passages of time seem to go faster. As adults we generally have fewer new experiences that imprint on our minds.

Each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse. William James (1890)

How can we slow life down?

If you feel like life is escaping you and passing by far too fast for comfort, the answer may be to fill your time with new experiences. Learning new things may very effectively slow down our internal sense of time.

Alternatively, slowing down and experiencing less time pressure may reduce the problem.

The ‘holiday effect’

My favourite solution of all is to have more holidays — a combination of reducing time pressure and maximising new experiences. Although at the time a great holiday may seem to be over all too fast, as we look back we feel like we’ve been away from the daily grind for a long time.

A holiday in the name of research? Yes please.

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