Why does time seem to speed up when we get older?
why time speed up as we get older

April 8, 2021

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With a deep sigh you blow out the candles on the cake. Today is your birthday and the whole family is congratulating you. You should be happy, but something is troubling you. Last year seems to have passed so quickly, even quicker than the year before. When you were younger, you never understood why your parents were always complaining about how the years went by so fast, but now you’re beginning to realise what they meant. Luckily, you’re not the only one that experiences it. It’s namely the story that everybody seems to understand; life speeds up as we age. Of course this is not really the case, so why do we still feel like time is going faster and faster as we get older?

An explanation a lot of people have for this phenomenon is that, as we get older, each additional year only makes up a smaller fraction of the total number of years you have lived. So for example, your tenth year is 1/10 = 10% of the total time you have lived, but your twentieth year only makes up 1/20 = 5%. So, if we experience each additional year of life as a part of the total, this theory would indeed make sense. Unfortunately, there is a problem with this explanation. As seen from the graph below, it means that roughly at age six, you have already “lived” half your life. In reality this of course not the case, so this explanation does not seem to fit that well. What other explanation could there be?

A better explanation can be found if we look at our perception of time and the creation of memories. We can namely perceive time in two different ways: a prospective view, as an event is still occurring, and a retrospective view, after an event has ended. For the prospective view, how we feel about the activity has a large impact on our perception of time. It actually turns out that time really does fly when you are having fun. Have you ever noticed that a great movie is over before you know it and a game of sports seemed to have lasted shorter than it actually had? During enjoyable activities or new experiences, we seem to be more focussed on the activity and less aware of the time passing by.  

This brings us to our second perception of time, the retrospective view, because if we remember those activities later on, it now feels like the experience lasted longer than normal. This is because our brain “saves” new experiences, but often not familiar ones. Hence more memories are made when experiencing novelty. Our retrospective view is based on the number of memories made, so if you have a lot of new experiences lately, it will feel like this period of time took longer if you look back at it. Combining this with the fact that when you are younger, you experience a lot more novelty then when you get older, it explains why it may feel like time is speeding up as you get older.

There is also a biological explanation why time seems to go by faster as we get older, as our “internal clock” seems to slow down as we age. As we get older, the rate at which our neurons fire decreases. Hence it takes more time for electrical signals to traverse distances, consequently increasing the processing time. For example, for your visual perception it takes longer before you have processed what you see, so more time passes between new images your brain makes. You can compare this with the frames per second of a camera. When you are younger, your frame rate is greater, causing you to perceive time slower, just like a slow motion camera.

We now have an explanation for the question why life seems to speed up as we age, but what can we do with this information? Is there a way you can slow time, or at least your perception of time? Well, there are indeed some things you can do to make you feel like time is not flying. As said earlier, new experiences can help you create more memories. Furthermore, it turns out that being afraid affects your prospective perception. People who go skydiving or bungee jumping tend to judge their experience to last longer than it actually has. Lastly, getting bored also makes time slow down, as you’re extremely aware of how much time is passing by. Hence, if you want to get your grip back on the time, do something new, face your fears or just get bored!

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