Does time really fly faster as we get older? Anecdotally it sure seems so, and it appears that some researchers are claiming that that perception is indeed valid. At least internally – for while time itself is invariant, it appears that our perception of time is affected by psychological changes of the brain as we age, and those changes appear to effect the way we feel about time itself.
What a pity we can’t all have time-lapse movies made of our lives like this one from Christoph Rehange chronicling just one year of his life. The stories and experiences they would show would simply be amazing and unique. This video came to mind as I was listening to an NPR story on this very subject of time perception.
What these videos don’t show, of course, are the psychological changes, and one of the most universal changes as humans age: the perception of time.
Faster And Faster And Faster
As people get older, “they just have this sense, this feeling that time is going faster than they are,” says Warren Meck, a psychology professor at Duke University.
This seems to be true across cultures, across time, all over the world.
No one is sure where this feeling comes from.
Scientists have theories, of course, and one of them is that when you experience something for the very first time, more details, more information gets stored in your memory. Think about your first kiss.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine says that since the touch of the lips, the excitement, the taste, the smell — everything about this moment is novel — you aren’t embroidering a bank of previous experiences, you are starting fresh.
Have you noticed, he says, that when you recall your first kisses, early birthdays, your earliest summer vacations, they seem to be in slow motion? “I know when I look back on a childhood summer, it seems to have lasted forever,” he says.
That’s because when it’s the “first”, there are so many things to remember. The list of encoded memories is so dense, reading them back gives you a feeling that they must have taken forever. But that’s an illusion. “It’s a construction of the brain,” says Eagleman. “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,” says Eagleman, “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.”
That may be because the brain records new experiences — especially novel and exciting experiences — differently. This is even measurable. Eagleman’s lab has found that brains use more energy to represent a memory when the memory is novel.
So, first memories are dense. The routines of later life are sketchy. The past wasn’t really slower than the present. It just feels that way.
There are all kinds of arguments one could have with this theory but do these experiences belong exclusively to the young?
Older people have novel experiences — lots of them. Some of us have crazier middle ages than youths. We fall in love, out of love. Then our parenting years are filled with watching our babies’ first thises, first thats. Retired people travel — if they can afford to — to duplicate some of those rushes of novel experiences.
Yes, it’s true, the youngest years are chock full of novelty, but Duke’s Warren Meck points out that when you hit your 60s and 70s, and time is beginning to run out, experiences get more precious and once again you remember all the details.
Other theories may prove more satisfying.
Professors Meck and Eagleman explore a number of them on our All Things Considered broadcast. If you wish to hear the “Aging Brain” theory of why time goes faster, or the “How Long Have You Been Alive?” explanation, they await you at the top of this page, where the button says “Listen.”
You can read the full story at NPR here.