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Why Does Time Fly as We Get Older?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Time flies

Wikimedia Commons/aussiegal

Another year; another Christmas around the corner.

The conversation around the watercooler these days has evolved into the annual “where has the time gone?” discussion—how quickly the neighborhood kids have become high school graduates; how our hot July beach vacations seem like they were just yesterday; and how we haven’t baked cookies or sent cards or bought gifts yet because time has just been flying by.

It’s become a common complaint—almost a joke—that time seems to whiz by faster and faster as we get older.

Of course, aging doesn’t grant us the power to disrupt the space-time continuum, so it’s not a real problem. But why do we perceive it to be?

Psychologist William James, in his 1890 text Principles of Psychology, wrote that as we age, time seems to speed up because adulthood is accompanied by fewer and fewer memorable events. When the passage of time is measured by “firsts” (first kiss, first day of school, first family vacation), the lack of new experiences in adulthood, James morosely argues, causes “the days and weeks [to] smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

In the early 1960s, Wallach and Green studied this phenomenon in groups of younger (18-20 years) and older (median age 71 years) subjects through the use of metaphors. Young people were more likely to select static metaphors to describe the passage of time (such as “time is a quiet, motionless ocean”). Older folks, on the other hand, described time with swift metaphors (“time is a speeding train”). In research by Joubert (1990), young subjects, when asked, said that they expect time to pass more rapidly when they become older.

In the first study (2005) to examine the subjective passage of time across the lifespan, Marc Wittman and Sandra Lehnhoff of Ludwig-Maximilian University Munich recruited 499 participants ranging in age from 14-94. Each subject filled out a series of questionnaires. The first part included questions on a Likert-type scale (ratings from -2 to +2) with answers ranging from time passing “very slowly” to “very fast.” The second part consisted of statements and metaphors about the passage of time, and subjects were asked to rate each sentence from 0 (“strong rejection”) to 4 (strong approval”).

Unexpectedly, Wittman and Lehnhoff found a weak association between age and the individuals’ perception of time; in other words, everybody, regardless of age, thought that time was passing quickly. The question, “How fast did the last 10 years pass for you?” yielded a tendency for the perception of the speed of time (in the last decade, anyway) to increase with age; this pattern peaked at age 50, however, and remained steady until the mid-90s. Questions regarding smaller intervals of time (“How fast did the last hour/week/month pass?”) did not change with age.

When it came to metaphors, folks between ages 20-59 were more likely to select statements referring to “time pressure,” or the notion that time is speeding by and that one can’t finish all they want to do in the time allotted. Wittman and Lehnhoff reason that people in this age range (but not teenagers or the elderly) are most likely to be in the midst of professional and family duties, resulting in the feeling that once can’t keep up with life’s demands.

Wikimedia Commons/Chalmers Butterfield

In 2010, William Friedman (Oberlin College) and Steve Janssen (Duke University) expanded upon these findings. In this study, 49 undergraduate students and 50 older adults (aged 60-80 years) were given a list of twelve newsworthy events of the past decade and asked to rate a.) when the event occurred, and b.) how well they remembered each event. They also completed the same Likert scale as in Wittmann and Lehnhoff’s study to assess their perception of the speed of time.

While subjects in both age groups reported a good memory for all twelve events, young adults were more likely to underestimate age of the event. Furthermore, these individuals replicated Wittmann and Lehnhoff’s findings that while both age groups perceived short periods of time (i.e. hours, weeks, months) similarly, older adults reported that the last 10 years passed more quickly than young adults.

In an extension of this study published in July of this year, Friedman, Janssen, and Makiko Naka (Hokaido University in Japan) found that among those individuals who felt that they were currently experiencing significant time pressure, time was passing quickly on short time intervals (i.e. weeks, months). Those who felt time pressure over the past decade, on the other hand, felt that the previous ten years had passed in a flash.

Two conclusions appear to ring true: 1.) While age is certainly a factor, the notion of “time pressure” contributes significantly to our perception of time, across all age groups, and 2.) Time pressure is cross-cultural; the results of these studies were similar among the German, Austrian, Dutch, Japanese, and New Zealander participants.

So, what’s going on here? Why does it seem like Christmas 2012 was just last week when, as a child, it seemed to take ages to arrive?

We’ll probably never know why, exactly, but psychologists have put forth some interesting theories:

1. We gauge time by memorable events.
As William James hypothesized, we may be measuring past intervals of time by the number of events that can be recalled in that period. Imagine a 40-something mom experiencing the repetitive, stressful daily grind work and family life. The abundant memories of her high school years (homecoming football games, prom, first car, first kiss, graduation) may, compared to now, seem like much longer than the mere four years that they were.

2. The amount of time passed relative to one’s age varies.
For a 5-year-old, one year is 20% of their entire life. For a 50-year-old, however, one year is only 2% of their life. This “ratio theory,” proposed by Janet in 1877, suggests that we are constantly comparing time intervals with the total amount of time we’ve already lived.

3. Our biological clock slows as we age.
With aging may come the slowing of some sort of internal pacemaker. Relative to the unstoppable clocks and calendars, external time suddenly appears to pass more quickly.

4. As we age, we pay less attention to time.
When you’re a kid on December 1, you’re faithfully counting down the days until Santa brings your favorite Hot Wheels down the chimney. When you’re an adult on December 1, you’re a little more focused on work, bills, family life, scheduling, deadlines, travel plans, Christmas shopping, and all of that other boring adult stuff. The more attention one focuses on tasks such as these, the less one will notice the passage of time.

5. Stress, stress, and more stress.
As concluded by Wittmann and Lehnhoff (and replicated by Friedman and Janssen), the feeling that there is not enough time to get things done may be reinterpreted as the feeling that time is passing too quickly. Even older individuals (who are, more often than not, retired from work) may continue to feel similarly due to physical handicaps or diminished cognitive ability.

While the feeling may be inescapable, appease yourself by knowing that time is not literally getting faster as you age. Take a moment to slow down this Christmas, enjoy time with your family and friends, and be assured that the fancy Rolex that Santa brings you next Wednesday is doing its job just fine.

Friedman, W.J. and S.M.J. Janssen. 2010. Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica 134: 130-141.

Janssen, S.M.J., M. Naka, and W.J. Friedman. 2013. Why does life appear to speed up as people get older? Time & Society 22(2): 274-290.

Wittmann, M. and S. Lehnhoff. 2005. Age effects in perception of time. Psychological Reports 97: 921-935.

Jordan Gaines Lewis About the Author: Jordan Gaines Lewis is a science writer and doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine, studying sleep in adolescents. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and NBC News Health. She blogs about neuroscience at Gaines, on Brains. Visit her website at www.JordanGaines.com. Follow on Twitter @GainesOnBrains.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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