Why Does Time Seem to Fly as We Get Older?

By Christian Yates, University of Bath | August 11, 2016 12:55 pm
time flies

(Aleksandar Mijatovic/Shutterstock)

When we were children, the summer holidays seemed to last forever, and the wait between Christmases felt like an eternity. So why is that when we get older, the time just seems to zip by, with weeks, months and entire seasons disappearing from a blurred calendar at dizzying speed?

This apparently accelerated time travel is not a result of filling our adult lives with grown-up responsibilities and worries. Research does in fact seem to show that perceived time moves more quickly for older people making our lives feel busy and rushed.

There are several theories which attempt to explain why our perception of time speeds up as we get older. One idea is a gradual alteration of our internal biological clocks. The slowing of our metabolism as we get older matches the slowing of our heartbeat and our breathing. Children’s biological pacemakers beat more quickly, meaning that they experience more biological markers (heartbeats, breaths) in a fixed period of time, making it feel like more time has passed.

Another theory suggests that the passage of time we perceive is related to the amount of new perceptual information we absorb. With lots of new stimuli our brains take longer to process the information so that the period of time feels longer. This would help to explain the “slow motion perception” often reported in the moments before an accident. The unfamiliar circumstances mean there is so much new information to take in.

In fact, it may be that when faced with new situations our brains record more richly detailed memories, so that it is our recollection of the event that appears slower rather than the event itself. This has been shown to be the case experimentally for subjects experiencing free fall.

But how does this explain the continuing shortening of perceived time as we age? The theory goes that the older we get, the more familiar we become with our surroundings. We don’t notice the detailed environments of our homes and workplaces. For children, however, the world is an often unfamiliar place filled with new experiences to engage with. This means children must dedicate significantly more brain power re-configuring their mental ideas of the outside world. The theory suggests that this appears to make time run more slowly for children than for adults stuck in a routine.

She has all the summer time in the world. (Credit: Shutterstock)

So the more familiar we become with the day-to-day experiences of life, the faster time seems to run, and generally, this familiarity increases with age. The biochemical mechanism behind this theory has been suggested to be the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine upon the perception of novel stimuli helping us to learn to measure time. Beyond the age of 20 and continuing into old age, dopamine levels drop making time appear to run faster.

But neither of these theories seem to tie in precisely with the almost mathematical and continual rate of acceleration of time.

The apparent reduction of the length of a fixed period as we age suggests a “logarithmic scale” to time. Logarithmic scales are used instead of traditional linear scales when measuring earthquakes or sound. Because the quantities we measure can vary to such huge degrees, we need a wider ranging measurement scale to really make sense of what is happening. The same is true of time.

On the logarithmic Richter Scale (for earthquakes) an increase from a magnitude ten to 11 doesn’t correspond to an increase in ground movement of 10 percent as it would do in a linear scale. Each increment on the Richter scale corresponds to a ten-fold increase in movement.

Toddler Time

But why should our perception of time also follow a logarithmic scaling? The idea is that we perceive a period of time as the proportion of time we have already lived through. To a two-year-old, a year is half of their life, which is why it seems such an extraordinary long period of time to wait between birthdays when you are young.

To a ten-year-old, a year is only 10 percent of their life, (making for a slightly more tolerable wait), and to a 20-year-old it is only 5 percent. On the logarithmic scale, for a 20-year-old to experience the same proportional increase in age that a two-year-old experiences between birthdays, they would have to wait until they turned 30. Given this view point it’s not surprising that time appears to accelerate as we grow older.

We commonly think of our lives in terms of decades – our 20s, our 30s and so on – which suggests an equal weight to each period. However, on the logarithmic scale, we perceive different periods of time as the same length. The following differences in age would be perceived the same under this theory: five to ten, ten to 20, 20 to 40 and 40 to 80.

I don’t wish to end on a depressing note, but the five-year period you experienced between the ages of five and ten could feel just as long as the period between the ages of 40 and 80.

So get busy. Time flies, whether you’re having fun or not. And it’s flying faster and faster every day.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
ADVERTISEMENT
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    A First World child has the privilege of boredom for not being imminently threatened with destruction. A retiree is being screwed in every administrative direction, plus health issues. Validation: Does time pass slowly for children in Aleppo, Syria? Are seniors warehoused in nursing homes bored?

  • Chris Fotis

    I live how someone put a technical name to this – something which is pretty commonsense. If I’m 50, the last 5 years of my life is a mere 10%. The same period for a 10 year old, is 50% – arguably greater. However, this still does not explain perception of time. 10 year olds will experience long summer vacations, 50 year olds shorter ones for the same period. It is the result of the same process that allows adults to perform complex functions more efficiently – focusing on what is needed, filtering out the rest. Experience tells the adult what is necessary. A child has yet to learn as much. The uspide for adults is the ability to cope in a complex world. The downside is that they miss the opportunity to experience new sensations and stimuli, whereas the child’s mind is acting more like a sponge than a filter.

    This process in older people can be altered or modified in new situations, similar to children. A simple example being finding a destination unfamiliar with. The trip getting there, navigating the unknown, will be perceived as taking longer, whereas the trip back, after what was unknown is now known, is perceived as shorter. The same trip to the destination, now that is known, will also be perceived differently because the route is known, and no longer challenging. This is the situation a child is constantly confronted with as many experiences are new – their lives are structured for constant change until adulthood, when they are expected to settle.

    Another example are disasters or emergencies, where time is perceived as virtually standing stil during the experience of theml. Many people describe this phenomenon as adults. I have experienced as much in a road accident situation. It’s during these unexpected, unfamiliar situations that our minds dispense with its filter – the situation being so unusual it can’t tell what is important and what is not. It needs as much “data” as it can get to start making that determination.

    But possibly the best example is war, which is often a time of extreme uncertainty and challenge. Because of imminent threat of death and destruction, life is lived at a different pace in almost all areas. It could be compared to seeing the dentist, where the perception of potential pain acts similar to actual pain.

    • John A

      I asked this question back in 1994 while staring at a pool. My theory was essentially the logarithmic scale – that as a child, a year is a relatively long amount of time as it’s a higher fraction of your life experience. As we age, a year would be relatively shorter.

      • Chris Fotis

        There’s a bit more going on than that, I think – it’s not just a matter of numbers and proportions. The explanation is the same for both perception of time and why children learn quicker IMO. Essentially, children are perceiving more stimuli per given time unit than adults. Of course, these are generalisations – some children are slow learners, and some adults retain the ability to learn things quickly throughout their lives. It’s the latter which is the most interesting because whatever the methodology they practise, is worth emulating.

      • OWilson

        A logical answer that makes eminent sense!

  • Michael O’Leary

    Maybe it’s time dilation – as our life force (spirit) approaches the point where it splits from the physical universe (when we die), perceivable time speeds up. After death, we accelerate to the speed of light, where the passage of time is imperceptible. I’m sure physicists have an equation for it.

  • Art Mezins

    This article interchanges the use of base 10 and base 2 growth when they are obviously not equivalent.

    I recall even as a child that time would pass quickly when I was busy either physically or mentally, as is the case today in my sixties. Regardless of age, watching a clock (or paint drying), time “moves” slowly, but when I’m occupied, time passes quickly. But compared to my younger self, I find that now, my mind is almost never idle, but is constantly cranking away at something… like this.

  • https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Free-Advice-Man/178147162943 Jean-Pierre A. Fenyo

    I think it has to do with not being able to enjoy the moment! For when we are constantly worried and forced by socio-economic injustices and other societal dysfunctionalities to constantly try to figure out how we are going to solve our problems, we are unable to truly absorb and experience life’s momentary pleasures! OF course; there is the comparative perception of time to take into consideration too. One who has only know a few short months or years is comparing their experience of presential time to that! Whereas when we are older we are comparing each presential moment and each sequence of moments in relation to a much longer past. And yes; this does have to do with a drop in hormones and dopamine levels. Most societies abuse their members, bullying is worse during socio-economic crisis, and anxiety involves stress hormones that undermine the benefits of dopamine and endorphins. We are adrenaline-shocked and tend to develop bipolarity, going back and forth from a state of depression to a state of anxiety, without enough fulfilling pleasure and joyful presentiality. Jean-Pierre A. Fenyo, Philosopher of Ethics, etc.

  • zlop

    When older, the preset is correlated with more past experiences.
    That takes more time — eventually, time stops.

  • DMcD

    I have my own theory on this subject….I think a great deal of this very-real phenomenon has a great deal to do with the ‘anticipation’ we strongly felt when we were young, towards forthcoming positive events (XMas, BDays, turning 21 etc), and how that amplifies each minute that stands in the way…….as opposed to the adult, who no longer eagerly longs for much of anything & often conversely dreads upcoming deadlines (April 15th comes far-annoyingly sooner each year)…that’s my take on this anyway.

  • Siddharth

    So much bullshit.

  • Harvey Wallbanger

    I guess I am one of the few that has not experienced this effect. I am 65 and a year seems just as long now as it did when I was 5. I have no idea why. I know all my siblings are the same way but my parents are not. Perhaps something in the genes.

    I also know that I do not have be approaching the speed of light to experience time dilation. All I have to do is be approaching my next paycheck.

  • charlie victor

    We become more aware, consciously or unconsciously of the eventuality of our leaving the world we know.

  • David Kline

    First– it ‘seems’ to fly. How realistic is a numerical measure of subjective reality? How to prove my 5 year plan is longer or shorter than yours?

    Next– This discussion precludes the possibility that time does’t fly. And it assumes we all know what time is.

    Last– My real experiance is that there is no time to experience. It hasn’t always been this way. I know I’m 78, but now when I get a birthday card I have to check the calender. There is just so much to do and enjoy that I can’t be bothered with illusions. Wrinkles? Pains? Sure. But is that time?

    Of course this is subjective on my part. But I guess I have a right to include how it ‘seems’ to me.

  • Laszlo Wollner

    It has been said that time is constant and it doesn’t change is false. In fact time is constantly changing. We as humans are living in the past and we can not see an event until it has happened. Time has lapsed from the event that has taken place for us to see and comprehend.
    Now let’s take the human mind into account. We know that the neurons that fire in our brains are travelling light speed from location to location. Given that the speed to light is not a constant they are travelling at different speeds. Although we can’t determine which neuron is doing what we could assume that the thought process is constantly changing as well. Whether we see it or not isn’t relative. It’s how we perceive it from a conscious state is what is important. When we are in an unconscious state time has no meaning nor do we understand it. Over the course of our lives events have changed how see the world around us. Good or bad.

  • Greg Svnsn

    So iaw with the laws of physics, and accounting for time dilation and scaling, here is my question: if you are assigned to a starship at age 5, and proceed on a 5 year mission to seek out new life, and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before, when you get back, 500 years has passed on earth; HOWEVER, if you are 50 years old when you leave earth, how many years have passed? And the answer, according to common core math, is clearly the purple gorilla on the ferris wheel has syphilis.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

The Crux

A collection of bright and big ideas about timely and important science from a community of experts.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar
+