Why does time speed up as we get older?
Let’s imagine you showed several people a horizontal line and told them that the left end marks their birth and the right end their death, then asked them to mark where they thought they were in their lifetime right now. What do you think would happen?
Yes, they probably would stare at you strangely.
Who are you, what are you doing in the back of my car, and why are you waving that piece of paper at me?
If you convinced them to give it a go, though, you’d find that the older people would behave differently from the younger people, and not only in the obvious sense that the older you are, the further to the right you’d tend to put your mark. You’d also see that older people tend to underestimate how far along the line they are, while younger people tend to overestimate – though women are typically more accurate than men at any age [i]. Effectively, you’ve got 20-year-olds marking a point on the line that’s nearer where a 30-year-old should be putting it, and 80-year-olds marking a line where a 70-year-old should be putting it.
What the heck?
There’s plenty of evidence that time seems to speed up as we get older, though I should note here that not everyone who’s done research on this agrees [ii]. You might have noticed that your birthday seems to come around quicker every year, or that summers used to last forever when you were a child and now seem to be over in five seconds – unless you are the parent of a small child, in which case I have heard they seem to last for 143 years; may I suggest Hurrah For Gin?
Let’s look at some examples of this speeding up.
Craik and Hay [iii] asked young adults and older adults to judge shapes as they appeared on a screen. While they were doing the task, they were either asked to judge how long they’d been doing it at a certain point or to press a key when they thought a certain amount of time had elapsed. The older adults typically said they’d been doing the task for a shorter time than younger adults, but pressed the key after a longer time than the younger adults. These behaviours are both consistent with time passing quicker for the older adults than the younger adults. (Yes, it took me a while to get my head around that too – the trick that worked for me is imagining that I think time is passing really quickly or really slowly and then asking myself how I’d behave in each of those situations).
If you ask people to rate how fast the last ten years have passed, you’ll see a nice correlation between increased age and faster passage of time [iv]. People will also say they’re busier now than they were 10 years ago, which might mean that time seems to be passing faster because as we get older we have more to do than we used to, or – as the researchers in this study pointed out, perhaps because you tend to underestimate how busy you were 10 years ago.
A third explanation: we really are getting busier and busier as we are pulled into the death vortex of late-age capitalism, where time is not only a dimension but a commodity and [rant continues for next several minutes/days]
Why is this happening?
There are loads of different theories as to why time seems to go faster as we get older. Friedman and Janssen [v] have a very nice summary of seven of them. Let’s take a quick look.
Time pressure theory! We’ve already encountered this one, which is simply that the feeling of being rushed that comes from being busy makes you feel like time is passing quicker, and you tend to get busier as you get older. But this doesn’t fit with the current Western habit of retiring once you get to about 60-70, which should in theory make you less busy.
That sound you can hear is the rageful howling of millennials, filtered through the walls of the home you actually own
We shouldn’t throw the theory away just yet, though: from your early 30s, your brain gets gradually less efficient at doing its thing, so even if you’re not actually getting busier, it might feel like you are because you’re trying to do the same amount with fewer brain resources iv. This is linked to attention theory: as you get older, the decline in brain resources makes it harder for you to attend to the passage of time because you’re using those resources for other, more important tasks.
Ratio theory! When I’ve discussed this time-speeding-up thing with students, this is typically the first hypothesis that they’ve suggested. It’s pretty simple: at 1 year old, 1 year represents 100% of your life so far. At 10, it represents 10%. At 100, it’s just 1%. Each time you think about the passage of time, you make an implicit comparison with all the time you have so far experienced.
Memorable events theory! This is the idea that when you’re young, basically everything is novel: first bath, first time eating carrots, first time throwing carrots on the floor and screaming, that kind of thing. As you get older, fewer and fewer things are novel. I have eaten carrots probably thousands of times now, so the novel experience has become an automatic experience which is inherently less memorable than it used to be. This is related to difficulty of recall theory, where if I can’t remember eating those carrots, then the perception of time passing while I was eating them has also been lost: time seems to be going quicker because my memory has skipped over those mundane events.
Carrots: deliciously unmemorable
Forward telescoping theory! Allow me to demonstrate with a trivia quiz. What year did Usain Bolt first win an Olympic gold medal? What year was the Euro coin first put into circulation? What year did the Spice Girls release Wannabe in the UK? The answers are 2008, 2002, and 1996, respectively. Most people, however, will think that those events occurred more recently than they actually did, as though time were, well, sliding into itself like a telescope. This will happen more and more as you get older, as you have more and more events in your lifetime to remember, so the theory is that the repeated experience of forward telescoping makes time appear to go faster.
Biological clock theory! Don’t worry, this is not related to sexist Daily Mail ideas about when/whether to give birth. Rather, the idea is that we all have some internal pacemaker mechanism that allows us to keep track of time. We’re not sure what the pacemaker is, though there are some ideas i like metabolic rate (how fast you digest food) and fluctuations in body temperature, both of which change as you age.
Which one is correct? Honestly, I don’t know. Different studies say wildly different things. Some support the time pressure hypothesis v. Some support the internal pacemaker hypothesis ii. Some say that the internal pacemaker hypothesis is nonsense [vi].
The problem is, there are lots of what psychologists call ‘confounding factors’ in measuring time perception. This is a fancypants way of saying that we can’t measure every single thing that could influence people’s judgement of the passage of time – and honestly, there are so many. In a brief sweep of the research that people have done on the perceived passage of time, I found out that time passes faster when you’re happy ii and slows down when you’re sad or depressed [vii], that women tend to be more accurate than men when doing the draw-a-line-to-mark-your-position-between-birth-and-death task that I mentioned at the start i, that psychoactive drugs can alter your perception of time [viii]. You’ll even think a shorter time has passed when you’ve been looking at an older adult’s face rather than a younger adult’s face [ix]!
Which gives us a heartwarming theory: visiting your grandparents takes a short time for you (because you’re looking at an old face) but a long time for them (because they’re looking at a young face).
Why should we care which theory is right? Well, all the above studies only consider healthy ageing: that is, growing older while retaining the abilities that allow you to maintain your own wellbeing. But many people don’t age healthily, so having a full picture of what healthy time perception looks like as we age means that we can more accurately tell when something is going wrong.
Consider Alzheimer’s disease, which can make your perception of the passage of time more variable than it would be otherwise [x]. Depending on which theory we go for about why time changes when we get older, we can interpret this information in different ways. If biological clock theory is true, then perhaps Alzheimer’s affects the pacemaker. If attention theory is true, then Alzheimer’s might make makes time pass differently because your attentional abilities are impaired. One interesting possibility is that people with Alzheimer’s struggle to do what is called ‘mental time travel’ [xi]. This is the ability to mentally relive past experiences, rather than simply knowing that they have happened. Think of it like the difference between remembering what songs were played at a gig you went to and simply knowing you were there because you have the ticket stubs.
Each of these interpretations of what’s happening with Alzheimer’s disease also suggests a different way to help maintain a more consistent perception of the passage of time – so developing a really accurate understanding of how we perceive time passing is necessary to find something that will actually help.
If you’re like me, you might be asking how to get time to slow down again. I have some good news! To explain it, we’ll first need to talk about the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, or ZTPI [xii]. If you haven’t done it before, I suggest that you have a go at it yourself! This blog will still be here when you get back barring some kind of internet outage or Skynet situation.
The ZTPI measures how much we focus on five different aspects of time: negative past experiences, positive past experiences, positive present experiences, the idea that what’s happening now is a matter of destiny rather than choice (aka fatalism), and the future. A ‘balanced’ score on the ZPTI reflects high focus on past and present positive experience while still keeping the future in mind, and low focus on past negative experience and present fatalism. If you have a balanced score on the ZPTI along with a good ability to regulate your emotions, then that can lessen the perceived speeding up of time as you get older [xiii]. To some extent, such thought patterns and behaviours can be learned, so as I say to everyone, sooner or later: get thee to a therapist, and learn to deal with your feelings.
[viii] Wackermann, J., Wittmann, M., Hasler, F., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2008). Effects of varied doses of psilocybin on time interval reproduction in human subjects. Neuroscience Letters, 435(1), 51-55.
[xi] El Haj, M., Moroni, C., Samson, S., Fasotti, L., & Allain, P. (2013). Prospective and retrospective time perception are related to mental time travel: Evidence from Alzheimer’s disease. Brain and Cognition, 83(1), 45-51.
[xii] Zimbardo, P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (2015). Putting time in perspective: A valid, reliable individual-differences metric. In Time perspective theory; review, research and application (pp. 17-55). Springer.
[xiii] Wittmann, M., Rudolph, T., Linares Gutierrez, D., & Winkler, I. (2015). Time perspective and emotion regulation as predictors of age-related subjective passage of time. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(12), 16027-16042.