Why Our Sense of Time Speeds Up as We Age

Why does our sense of time speed up as we age? We can’t slow time down. But we can do things to pace ourselves. Keep reading to learn more!
Why Our Sense of Time Speeds Up as We Age

Last update: 05 July, 2021

As we age, why does our sense of time speed up? Surely, we can’t slow time down, though we can do things to pace ourselves and create more lasting impressions of times past. The brilliant ideas below will surely help. The expression “time flies”, which came from the Latin phrase “Tempus fugit”. Believe it or not, many people in the world find themselves saying or thinking about this expression.

Time passes really fast. It can even feel like our life passes us by. For example, when you scroll through Facebook looking at the photos of old friends or when you drop your beloved children off at school and feel moved by how big they got. Likewise, when you celebrate your own birthday, you may stop and say, “Where did the time go?”

This sobering revelation is utterly powerful. Still, it wasn’t like this when we were children, was it? I remember each year, broken into school semesters, holidays, and summer vacations, seemed to pass slowly. This allowed me to fully process every experience, no matter how mundane.

When we’re children, we perceive that time moves at a leisurely pace. It quickens as we become adults. Thus, according to a team of neuroscientists, this is a common experience – the perception of time is relative. On the other hand, age and memory play major roles.

“Don’t let the fear of the time it’ll take to accomplish something, stand in the way. The time will pass anyway. We might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.”

-Earl Nightingale-

The perception of time is relative

“Most adults feel that time elapsed slowly in their earlier days, and then speeded up later in life,” said Dr. Santosh Kesari. Dr. Kesari is an acclaimed neurologist, neuro-oncologist, and neuroscientist. Most importantly, he’s the chair of the Department of Translational Neurosciences and Neurotherapeutics at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute.

The perception of time may be due to a few factors, according to Kesari. Firstly, when we’re children, a year of life amounts to much more time of existence. “When it comes to a ten-year-old, one year is ten percent of their lives,” Kesari says. “Still, for a sixty-year-old, one year is less than two percent of their lives.”

Additionally, when we’re children, life constantly introduces us to new things, such as the world also introduces children to new ideas. They leave lasting impressions on our own memories. “We gauge time by memorable events. Therefore, fewer new things occur as we age to remember. It makes it seem like our childhoods lasted longer.

“The whole world is a stage, and all the men and women merely actors. They have their exits and their entrances, and in his lifetime a man will play many parts, his life separated into seven acts. In the first act he is an infant, whimpering and puking in his nurse’s arms.”

-William Shakespeare-

Children may perceive time as it’s happening more slowly than adults

Firstly, it’s important to note that the type of time perception we discussed thus far is retrospective perception. In other words, we’re talking about the time we remember, rather than time as we experience it in real-time. There’s evidence that our time perception is also much slower. For example, when we were very young children.

Children’s working memory undergo development at the neural circuit level,” says Patricia Costello. “Both their attention and executive function also develop at the level,” she adds. Patricia is a neuroscientist and program director at Walden University. Their neural transmission is physically slower compared to adults. 

In turn, this dramatically affects how they perceive the passage of time. By the time we’re adults, our time circuits are done wiring. We learned from our own experience how to correctly encode the passage of time. There are many innovative methods to test this theory. Nevertheless, one method of testing that researchers used is temporal bisection tasking. 

They used this to successfully determine this discrepancy in time perception between children and adults. In this method, researchers have participants listen to a series of tones. Secondly, participants had to compare them in terms of duration and speed.

Young children lack accuracy when it comes to tasks

Likewise, Costello did many more lab studies about time and age. “I performed these lab studies with bisection tasking,” says Costello. “Firstly, you first hear a short tone that’s about a fraction of a second and you hear comparison tones. You have to respond after the short and long tone, and you have to say something. For instance, if the next tone is more like the short or more like the long one. Next, the researchers measure how accurate you were in your perception.”

Researchers discovered that the youngest participants (typically five years of age) have little accuracy in perception. Nonetheless, when they were old enough to understand the task, they were accurate, as they tend to hear those short tones as longer than they actually are.

“The theory is that we get better over time,” says Costello. “Children who are eight to ten years old get fairly accurate at it. It has to do with processing speed and how well they pay attention. Also, children’s brains are still developing. Their neurons don’t have all their myelin – the insulator on the neuron.” Unfortunately, this lag in real-time perception doesn’t span beyond early childhood.

It doesn’t play a role in retrospective time perception. Ultimately, it doesn’t explain the subjective experience we have in adulthood when we feel like time passed more slowly when we were young. That specific sensation more likely attributes to the fact that children had less time on the planet. When we reach adulthood, we aren’t forming as many new memories.

Consider the ‘Holiday Paradox’

Do you feel that your life is passing you by quickly? There are many ways to change this, though only to an extent. We surely can’t slow time down, as that would require defying the laws of physics.  Still, we can do things to pace ourselves and create more lasting impressions. Costello discusses the famous Holiday Paradox, also known as the Vacation Paradox.

Famous psychology writer Claudia Hammondthis wrote about this brilliant time perception theory in her book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception in 2013. This theory unpacks the subjective experience of how time flies even when you have an enjoyable, new experience like a vacation.

But when you reflect on it, it feels like it lasted longer than it really did. There are many ways to discuss this theory, and we came up with a helpful key takeaway. A novel experience may feel like it’s flying by, even though you’ll have a deeper impression of that time. You’ll likely have a bundle of unique memories tied to it. Lastly, they’ll also give stretch and substance to that time gone by.

Create new experiences that engage your brain

Do you want to highly elongate your sense of the past once and for all? Believe it or not, there are many ways to engage your brain. For example, a much-needed vacation or a visit to a foreign country. If you don’t have the budget for a vacation, you can do other fun things. Try something or learn something new.

For instance, you can learn a new language, play an instrument, or read a book. “How can we stop that feeling of things going too fast and the feeling of missing out on our own lives? Learn new things,” says Costello. “Are you learning a new skill? Are you cooking something different? Introducing novelty into your life when you can makes memories stand out.”

Most importantly, stretch time in a way and go to many new places. Meeting new people and being spontaneous when you can are exercises that Costello champions for enhancing your sensitivity to the passage of time. It’s also a system that mirrors childhood to an extent. “Children have routine and mundane moments as well. However, they’re always learning something new,” she says.

At the end of each day, recall your time as vividly as possible

Lastly, Kesari suggests another genius potential retrospective time-enhancing hack. Try to remember your day as vividly as possible at the end of it. “I suspect that spending half an hour every night really reflecting may ingrain your memories to make them much more unique”, mentions Kesari. 

Memory is short-lived, though many of us just don’t fully engage in the everyday things we do. Consequently, the idea is to slow down and highly engage more at the moment. This way, when you’ll look back on everything deeply later, you may find time lasting longer.

In short, learning why our sense of time speeds up as we age can help. We hope these tips help you slow time down. Are you ready for more tips like the ones we shared here? Check out our informative blog.

“Time is the coin of your life. It’s the only coin you have. And only you can determine how it’ll be spent. So, be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”

-Carl Sandburg-

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