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At what age does time speed up?

Why does time seem to speed up as we age?

There’s a difference between «mind time» and time you measure with a clock.

Many of us recall with longing the endless summer days of childhood, when a single happy day at the beach seemed to last forever. That’s because for many of us, time seems to speed up the longer we live. Sometimes it seems like as soon as we’ve planted the first flower bulbs in the garden, it’s time to bring out BBQ for July 4, and then we find ourselves raking the fall leaves, hanging the holiday decorations, and counting down to midnight, wondering where the year went.

Various fields of science suggest this phenomenon may be rooted in some core human perception of the world that shifts over the course of our lives, influenced by neurology, psychology, and perhaps physics as well. And yet there’s still a lot we don’t understand.

Key theories

One theory is connected to the formation of memories. Our brains encode new experiences so that we learn from them. Childhood is filled with novel experiences, from first bike ride to first kiss. So, too, is young adulthood, when people take on their first solo homes and first jobs.

But new experiences often drop off for many of us as we establish our adult lives. Our jobs may require our expertise, but won’t ask us to learn new skills. We may settle long-term in a town that we know inside and out. And while raising a family is a dynamic process, it often relies on routine to keep the ship afloat.

Our perception of time is influenced by the connection between the amount of attention we give to an activity and how much we enjoy it.

Our perception of time is also influenced by the connection between the amount of attention we give to an activity and how much we enjoy it. We’ve all been there: Time flies when we’re having fun, but a late-afternoon meeting seems to last for days. Our emotional response to an event alters our perception of its duration.

Our aging brains may be a factor as well. A mechanical engineer, Adrian Bejan, recently proposed that as we get older, our brains process images at a slower rate than they did when we were young. This results in what he calls “mind time,” which is different from clock time.

“People are often amazed at how much they remember from days that seemed to last forever in their youth,” Bejan told New Atlas. “It’s not that their experiences were much deeper or more meaningful, it’s just that they were being processed in rapid fire.”

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Interestingly, some studies have found that the perception of passing time are actually pretty consistent across a wide range of ages. Stage of life — rather than age itself — may be the reason.

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Adulthood has always come with more responsibility than childhood, and middle age can be a particularly demanding time, especially if one is sandwiched between caring for aging parents and raising children, often while working. The demands of our busy adult lives simply consume a larger portion of our days than they kid when we were younger — what scientists call time pressure.

So does our perception of time have to keep speeding up? Not necessarily. Two hundred years before Einstein proposed that the perception of time changes relative to an observer’s position, the philosopher David Hume theorized that our very concept of time is based on perceiving change. Change your perspective by learning new skills, exploring new places, and meeting new people. These novel — and enjoyable — experiences will encode your brain with new memories that may lengthen the day. A rich life slows down mind time.

As H.G. Wells said, “We must not allow the clock and the calendar to blind us to the fact that each moment of life is a miracle and mystery.”

Jen Pinkowski is a science writer based in Berlin. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Washington Post, The New York Times, Mental Floss, Atlas Obscura and Archaeology.

Why Does Time Fly as We Get Older?

The conversation around the watercooler these days has evolved into the annual «where has the time gone?» discussion—how quickly the neighborhood kids have become high school graduates; how our hot July beach vacations seem like they were just yesterday; and how we haven’t baked cookies or sent cards or bought gifts yet because time has just been flying by.

It’s become a common complaint—almost a joke—that time seems to whiz by faster and faster as we get older.

Of course, aging doesn’t grant us the power to disrupt the space-time continuum, so it’s not a real problem. But why do we perceive it to be?

Psychologist William James, in his 1890 text Principles of Psychology, wrote that as we age, time seems to speed up because adulthood is accompanied by fewer and fewer memorable events. When the passage of time is measured by «firsts» (first kiss, first day of school, first family vacation), the lack of new experiences in adulthood, James morosely argues, causes «the days and weeks [to] smooth themselves out. and the years grow hollow and collapse.»

In the early 1960s, Wallach and Green studied this phenomenon in groups of younger (18-20 years) and older (median age 71 years) subjects through the use of metaphors. Young people were more likely to select static metaphors to describe the passage of time (such as «time is a quiet, motionless ocean»). Older folks, on the other hand, described time with swift metaphors («time is a speeding train»). In research by Joubert (1990), young subjects, when asked, said that they expect time to pass more rapidly when they become older.

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In the first study (2005) to examine the subjective passage of time across the lifespan, Marc Wittman and Sandra Lehnhoff of Ludwig-Maximilian University Munich recruited 499 participants ranging in age from 14-94. Each subject filled out a series of questionnaires. The first part included questions on a Likert-type scale (ratings from -2 to +2) with answers ranging from time passing «very slowly» to «very fast.» The second part consisted of statements and metaphors about the passage of time, and subjects were asked to rate each sentence from 0 («strong rejection») to 4 (strong approval»).

Unexpectedly, Wittman and Lehnhoff found a weak association between age and the individuals’ perception of time; in other words, everybody, regardless of age, thought that time was passing quickly. The question, «How fast did the last 10 years pass for you?» yielded a tendency for the perception of the speed of time (in the last decade, anyway) to increase with age; this pattern peaked at age 50, however, and remained steady until the mid-90s. Questions regarding smaller intervals of time («How fast did the last hour/week/month pass?») did not change with age.

When it came to metaphors, folks between ages 20-59 were more likely to select statements referring to «time pressure,» or the notion that time is speeding by and that one can’t finish all they want to do in the time allotted. Wittman and Lehnhoff reason that people in this age range (but not teenagers or the elderly) are most likely to be in the midst of professional and family duties, resulting in the feeling that once can’t keep up with life’s demands.

In 2010, William Friedman (Oberlin College) and Steve Janssen (Duke University) expanded upon these findings. In this study, 49 undergraduate students and 50 older adults (aged 60-80 years) were given a list of twelve newsworthy events of the past decade and asked to rate a.) when the event occurred, and b.) how well they remembered each event. They also completed the same Likert scale as in Wittmann and Lehnhoff’s study to assess their perception of the speed of time.

While subjects in both age groups reported a good memory for all twelve events, young adults were more likely to underestimate age of the event. Furthermore, these individuals replicated Wittmann and Lehnhoff’s findings that while both age groups perceived short periods of time (i.e. hours, weeks, months) similarly, older adults reported that the last 10 years passed more quickly than young adults.

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In an extension of this study published in July of this year, Friedman, Janssen, and Makiko Naka (Hokaido University in Japan) found that among those individuals who felt that they were currently experiencing significant time pressure, time was passing quickly on short time intervals (i.e. weeks, months). Those who felt time pressure over the past decade, on the other hand, felt that the previous ten years had passed in a flash.

Two conclusions appear to ring true: 1.) While age is certainly a factor, the notion of «time pressure» contributes significantly to our perception of time, across all age groups, and 2.) Time pressure is cross-cultural; the results of these studies were similar among the German, Austrian, Dutch, Japanese, and New Zealander participants.

So, what’s going on here? Why does it seem like Christmas 2012 was just last week when, as a child, it seemed to take ages to arrive?

We’ll probably never know why, exactly, but psychologists have put forth some interesting theories:

1. We gauge time by memorable events.
As William James hypothesized, we may be measuring past intervals of time by the number of events that can be recalled in that period. Imagine a 40-something mom experiencing the repetitive, stressful daily grind work and family life. The abundant memories of her high school years (homecoming football games, prom, first car, first kiss, graduation) may, compared to now, seem like much longer than the mere four years that they were.

2. The amount of time passed relative to one’s age varies.
For a 5-year-old, one year is 20% of their entire life. For a 50-year-old, however, one year is only 2% of their life. This «ratio theory,» proposed by Janet in 1877, suggests that we are constantly comparing time intervals with the total amount of time we’ve already lived.

3. Our biological clock slows as we age.
With aging may come the slowing of some sort of internal pacemaker. Relative to the unstoppable clocks and calendars, external time suddenly appears to pass more quickly.

4. As we age, we pay less attention to time.
When you’re a kid on December 1, you’re faithfully counting down the days until Santa brings your favorite Hot Wheels down the chimney. When you’re an adult on December 1, you’re a little more focused on work, bills, family life, scheduling, deadlines, travel plans, Christmas shopping, and all of that other boring adult stuff. The more attention one focuses on tasks such as these, the less one will notice the passage of time.

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5. Stress, stress, and more stress.
As concluded by Wittmann and Lehnhoff (and replicated by Friedman and Janssen), the feeling that there is not enough time to get things done may be reinterpreted as the feeling that time is passing too quickly. Even older individuals (who are, more often than not, retired from work) may continue to feel similarly due to physical handicaps or diminished cognitive ability.

While the feeling may be inescapable, appease yourself by knowing that time is notliterally getting faster as you age. Take a moment to slow down this Christmas, enjoy time with your family and friends, and be assured that the fancy Rolex that Santa brings you next Wednesday is doing its job just fine.

Image credit: aussiegal (via Wikimedia Commons)

Friedman, W.J. and S.M.J. Janssen. Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica 134: 130-141 (2010).

Janssen, S.M.J., M. Naka, and W.J. Friedman. Why does life appear to speed up as people get older? Time & Society 22(2): 274-290 (2013).

Wittmann, M. and S. Lehnhoff. 2005. Age effects in perception of time. Psychological Reports 97: 921-935 (2005).

Scientists reveal the reason why it feels like time goes faster as you age

Why time feels like it goes faster as you get older

Summer holidays felt like they went on forever, now the weekend goes by in the blink of an eye – here’s why:

We’ve all wondered it at some point: why does it feel like time goes faster as you get older and why did the days feel so much longer when you were a kid – it’s part of the human experience.

Whether it was watching the clock tick down at school, playing out till dusk or going on holiday, time felt like it was moving much slower – and that’s because it kind of was. Well, at least according to your brain, anyway.

Time as a proportionate to memory

So, why does time go so fast as you age? Put in the simplest terms, one of the most prevalent explanations is that our perception of time is inherently linked to how much time we have already lived – ie the older you get the more memories and experiences you have to draw on.

Using this rationale, to a five-year-old child, a single year feels incredibly long as it represents just 20 per cent of their entire life thus far and they have nothing else to compare it to other than the relatively short amount of time they’ve already been on Earth for.

Think about it: you rarely hear a kid talking about another childhood memory as having happened ‘ages ago’, do you? Moreover, their recollection as a proportion of their total memory and life-lived isn’t even complete as you have to discount infancy.

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Most people can’t remember anything prior to the ages of two or three, so imagine how infinitesimal those early memories are for a person in their old age whose brain is filled with decades of memories, experience and time lived.

How does the brain change how we perceive time?

So, what neurological phenomena lead to this proportional perception of time passing as we live more life? Well, as noted in a study published in the European Review, Professor Adrian Bejan suggests that we perceive “actual time” as between the arrival of newly-created neural images. Essentially, it’s the new stuff we remember most.

Speaking in an NBC News piece, neurologist and neuroscientist Santosh Kesari says: “We gauge time by memorable events and fewer new things occur as we age to remember, making it seem like childhood lasted longer”.

As she highlights, people are less likely to experience entirely new things and sensations as they get older; the logic holds up too, as I’m sure you can attest that you tend to remember something that you’ve done just once and never before more vividly than something you’ve done a hundred times over.

Even further still, this why you hear of people leaving work and driving home but barely remembering the journey: it’s so routine to your brain that you can essentially run on auto-pilot and switch off until whatever the task you’re doing is completed.

Moreover, in regards to days feeling much longer when you were younger, children’s cognition and neural processing are less developed than in adults, meaning new stimuli take longer to register and become familiar and there is more of a disconnect between an internal clock and the genuine passage of time.

Interestingly, studies have also shown that when children are asked to estimate unaided the passing of a single minute while idle, they actually tend to overestimate.

In research conducted by Clifford N. Lazarus, while kids often perceive what they feel like as a minute going by in just 4o seconds, adults tended to clock in around 70 seconds, which goes to show there are definitely more theories that could be at play here.

Nevertheless, what research has been done proves that time really does fly and judging by current findings, the best way to combat it is by going out and doing new things. Carpe diem and all that lark.

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