As Time Flies By: Aging and Perception of Time
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.
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.