Do you remember when you were growing up as a kid and time seemed to last forever? Now, you can’t seem to understand just where the time goes. Well, you may be shocked to know that researchers may have come up with a working scientific explanation for this phenomenon.
Take for example this study by psychologists Sandra Lenhoff and Marc Whittman, formerly of the University of Munich. In a survey of nearly 500 people, with an age range of between 14 and 94 years, the participants reported the following:
– Shorter durations of time – a week or a month, for example – did not seem to be perceived differently with age. All ages instinctively see shorter periods of time as accelerating faster than they actually did.
– Longer durations of time – multiple years or a decade – were perceived as passing much more quickly by those in the higher age groups when compared to people in the lower to mid-aged groups.
– Conclusion: “When asked to reflect on their lives, the participants older than 40 felt that time elapsed slowly in their childhood but then accelerated steadily …”
How could we possibly perceive time as accelerating as we get older? Can there actually be a valid scientific explanation for this experience? Or is this perception of time acceleration more based on individual psychology than anything else?
Setting the stage, we’re going to discuss a pair of topics that, on the surface, couldn’t seem more far apart: aging and physics (really!). First, let’s discuss what happens at the biological level.
Two Different Perspectives on Aging
“People are often amazed at how much they remember from days that seemed to last forever in their youth. It’s not that their experiences were much deeper or more meaningful; it’s just that they were being processed in rapid fire.” – Adrian Bejan, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University (source)
Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, says that physics is at the heart of how we perceive time. More specifically, complex physics-based in neuroscience are behind how we perceive time.
Here’s the basic gist of Bejan’s theory in three main points:
- 1. During our “younger years” – especially in childhood – webs of brain cells undergo rapid growth change which causes them to lengthen. Maturing brain cells make it easy for electrical signals to “fire and wire” together.
- 2. After this initial neuronal growth spurt, brain cells begin to deteriorate and shrink in size, creating more resistance to the flow of electrical signals.
- 3. The rate at which mental images are acquired and processed is faster in (1) than in (2).
Since the rate at which we process mental images correlates with the perceived slowness and acceleration of time, respectively, the brain wires itself to see time as passing slower during earlier stages of development than in the later years. Basically, this “rapid firing” of mental images directly affects how fast or slow we perceive the passing of time.
Moreover, there are two unique ways in which the physics of the brain unfolds: (1) Prospective vantage: the perception of time as an event unfolds, and (2) Retrospective vantage: the perception of experiencing time after the event ends.
These vantage points are based on how the brain encodes new experiences into memory. More specifically, how the brain more readily encodes novel experiences and resists encoding the familiar.
Let’s say you went on a fun-filled vacation to your dream spot. No matter what you did while on vacation, you’ll probably remember both the fun and not-so-fun times in rather vivid detail. Why? Because these events occur in a novel setting and your brain highly engages with its environment.
“Time Flies When You’re Having Fun.”
Another thing. Did you know that time does indeed “fly when you’re having fun” and “slows to a crawl when bored out of your skull?” How in the heck can we explain this one?
Once again, the answer is rooted in neuroscience. While we’re having a grand ole’ time, the brain is busy “snapping” images and storing them into memory. As a result of this rapid-fire activity, the brain will see time as coming and going at an extraordinary rate. Of course, since the activity – whatever it is – is deeply enjoyable, we desire nothing more than for this “time flying” to cease.
“The same thing happens as we get older and time starts to speed up,” says psychologist and BBC broadcaster Claudia Hammond, “There are fewer memories of new things, and we do the same things more and more often.”
There is a silver lining to this whole experience, however, which may arguably carry more value, particularly as you age or have more people with whom to share your treasured memories. As you reminisce about the event later on in life, the time will retroactively seem to have gone much slower than it did at the time. As you’ll have an abundance of mental images from which to savor, you can treasure these moments in vivid detail.
Slowing Things Down
“Let any one try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs. Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.” – William James in The Principles of Psychology (source)
A natural question to ask at this point is, “Well, what can I do to slow things down?” The answer may lie in mindfulness and paying closer attention.
The more attention we direct onto something, the more novel that thing becomes, and the more that time slows down. Fortunately, this concept doesn’t just apply to the enjoyable stuff that we experience for the first time.
Routine and even boring tasks may become more fulfilling and, thus, more memorable when done from a place of mindfulness. “Taking a different route to work, getting off your bus a stop early or avoiding having the same sandwich for lunch every day could make your life seem a bit slower,” says Hammond.
Training your brain to become more mindful is not an easy task. However, if you are patient enough to overcome your mind’s initial resistance, there are some remarkable benefits to reap.