As Time Flies By: Aging and Perception of Time

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It’s one of life’s more intriguing mysteries. Why does time seem to pass more quickly as we age?

How many times have you heard the heartfelt lament, or uttered it yourself: “Where have the years gone?”

Remember the long, lazy days of summer when you were a kid? Or how a school year could seemingly drag on forever? As an adult, on the other hand, we can only shake our heads at how quickly the days and weeks and seasons fly by. An entire year, or even five or 10 years, can pass in a blur.

Scientists say the perception of time speeding up as we age is a global phenomenon that is common across all cultures.

Why is this?

No one knows for sure, but there are several theories from psychologists and neuroscientists as to why our perception of time changes as we age. Here’s a brief overview of some possible explanations for the sense that life, at times, seems to be racing out of control.

It all comes down to the math

One explanation boils down to basic proportional theory. The logic is that at age 5, one year constitutes one-fifth or 20 per cent of a person’s life, and therefore can seem like a long time.

At the age of 50, on the other hand, a year represents a mere one-fiftieth of your life — and as a result, a year seems to go by far more quickly.

Early memories are more potent

Another theory, scientists say, has to do with how information gets stored in your memory when you experience something for the first time. Basically, when an experience is a new or novel one, the brain is wired to store more details.

In an interview on NPR, neuroscientist David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine in Texas says that when we have a new experience when we’re older, the brain can embroider on a bank of previous experiences. When we experience something new in our youth, on the other hand, the brain works hard to record all the details.

The result? The list of early-encoded memories is so dense that reading them back gives the illusionary sense they must have taken forever. “It’s a construction of the brain,” Eagleman says. “The more memory you have of something, you think, ‘Wow, that really took a long time!’”

“Of course, you can see this in everyday life,” he adds, “when you drive to your new workplace for the first time and it seems to take a really long time to get there. But when you drive back and forth to your work every day after that, it takes no time at all, because you’re not really writing it down anymore. There’s nothing novel about it.”

The bottom line: when experiences are new, novel or exciting, the brain records them in minute detail, but as experiences become more familiar as we age, the brain doesn’t bother with all the details — so events seem to pass more quickly.

The aging brain

Yet another theory pertains to biological characteristics of the aging brain. This theory holds that as the brain ages, it loses the ability to measure time accurately.

The brain’s neural conduction velocity, or the speed at which brain cells beat or pulse, essentially slows down with age, experts say. So just as when you’re walking slowly, people around you seem to be moving faster, the aging brain thinks more slowly, making the world appear to move faster… and faster.

The speed of time: a paradox

Have you ever noticed that the hours sometimes seem to drag, but the weeks and months still fly by? Scientists have also observed a time paradox for some older people who have reported feeling a slowness of time as it passes, but in retrospect, a feeling that it’s actually flashing past. According to experts, this generally affects people who have few activities, particularly new ones, to fill their day.

Listen to an NPR interview on why time seems to speed up as we get older.

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