Does Time Speeds Up As You Age?

The above video suggests that time speeds up as you age. On first reflection, this seems true. I’ve just turned 60, and time seems to pass faster now than when I was younger. As a child a day in school seemed to take forever, but so too did summer vacation. Today a school year seems to fly by for this professor. When I was a kid I thought something twenty years ago was prehistoric, now twenty years ago was 1995. And 1995 seems downright futuristic compared to the 1960s I remember. 

Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College has also found that the idea that objective time is speeding up as you age is illusory. “On the whole, most of us perceive short intervals of time similarly, regardless of age.” However, “when researchers asked the subjects about the 10-year interval, older subjects were far more likely than the younger subjects to report that the last decade had passed quickly.” So “Why … do older people look back at long stretches of their lives and feel it’s a race to the finish?”

Friedman’s answer is similar to Hammond’s. When you learn something for the first time, says a child, it takes time to learn and “you are forming a fairly steady stream of new memories of events, places and people.” Then as an adult when “you look back at your childhood experiences, they appear to unfold in slow motion probably because the sheer number of them gives you the impression that they must have taken forever to acquire.”

But this is merely an illusion, the way adults understand the past when they look through the telescope of lost time. This, though, is not an illusion: almost all of us faced far steeper learning curves when we were young. Most adults do not explore and learn about the world the way they did when they were young; adult life lacks the constant discovery and endless novelty of childhood.

“Studies have shown that the greater the cognitive demands of a task, the longer its duration is perceived to be,” so perhaps ” learning new things might slow down our internal sense of time.” This may also be part of the solution to the apparent speeding up of time as we age:

if you want time to slow down, become a student again. Learn something that requires sustained effort; do something novel. Put down the thriller when you’re sitting on the beach and break out a book on evolutionary theory or Spanish for beginners or a how-to book on something you’ve always wanted to do. Take a new route to work; vacation at an unknown spot. And take your sweet time about it.

I think this is right. We can squeeze a bit more out of life by continually developing. After all, the art of staying young is in large part a matter of continually learning new truths, and unlearning old falsehoods.

2 thoughts on “Does Time Speeds Up As You Age?

  1. What would this imply for the perceived passage of time for immortal post-humans? I suppose it could go both ways: if we can constantly learn then immortality would pass slowly (upon reflection) or we could become habituated and the millennia would fly by…

  2. Really interesting idea. If we are continually evolving—intellectually, morally, psychologically—we would live well in the present and time would seem full retrospectively. That is time would have seemed to have passed slowly in retrospect, but slow in a good way. Our descendents would recall fondly all that time that was well spent. If we ceased to evolve, then time would have been spent poorly and in retrospect millennia would seemed to have passed in an instant. This might lead to the boredom situation so many worry about.

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