You surely have heard adults complaining that years began passing by faster and faster. They say that it seems like only yesterday that they were holding your hand while walking you to your first day of school and they can’t believe that time flew so quickly and you’re all grown up. Or maybe you have experienced this yourself, having the sensation that college or high-school ended in the blink of an eye and each year passed more rapidly. You were a freshman a little while ago and now you find yourself in the position of looking for a job, paying rent, having responsibilities. When did that happen?
Time estimation – is it altered as we age?
Studies suggest that time estimation does not change with the passing of time. Chronobiologist Robert Sothern decided to make an experiment and tried to estimate when a minute has passed. Every day, for 48 years, he compared his estimation against a clock. He discovered that he overestimated the minute irregularly, with more overestimations in his 70s but also in 1990s, so there was no evidence that age affected his time estimation. In 2005, some researchers at the University of Central Florida and Westfield State College conducted a similar study, asking 200 participants aging 20-69 to state different time intervals and reported that there were no significant differences in the estimations of the old and the young.
Age and time perception
Another study was conducted in the same year by Marc Wittman and Sandra Lehnhoff of Ludwig-Maximilian University and had some interesting results. In this study, 499 participants aging 14-94 were asked how they perceived the passing of time, receiving questions about the perception of the passing of the previous week, month, year and decade. They had to give ratings from 2 to +2, corresponding to “very slowly” and “very fast”. In the second part of the test, the participants had to fill out questionnaires in which they rated a series of sentences regarding the passing of time from 0, which meant strong rejection, to 4, which stood for strong approval.
After analyzing the responses from the first part of the study, researchers discovered that there was a significant difference regarding the perception of the past decade in case of the young and the old, with the latter perceiving it to have passed more rapidly. In case of the second part of the test, the results showed that people aging 20-59 were more likely to choose the statements which referred to the notion of “time moving too quickly” or to “time pressure”.
These results suggest that even though time estimation is not altered by age, time perception, which is related to how fast we believe time passes when we think about events, suffers a mutation while we age.
What are the possible reasons why we perceive time to pass more quickly as we get older?
the ratio theory – In 1877 French psychologist Pierre Janet came with the “ratio theory”, which suggests that people constantly compare time intervals with the amount of time for which they have been alive. Thus said, a year makes a great difference for a six-year-old, representing a sixth of his life, while in the case of a 60-year-old it is not as significant and passes more quickly.
novel experiences – In order to understand the role of new experiences in our time perception, we need to be aware of the existence of the two different perspectives from which we perceive the passing of time, namely the prospective vantage, which refers to the moment when an event occurs, and the retrospective vantage, which is related to our perception when we look back to that moment. When we fill our time with new and fun activities, we perceive it to pass more rapidly because we are engaged and do not acutely perceive its passing. However, when we look back at those experiences, they seem to have lasted longer than the times when we were bored. This is because our brain estimates how much time has passed based on how many significant experiences we had during certain intervals of time; the more events occurred, the more time seems to have passed. As we grow old, the number of new, notable experiences decreases, the days begin to look more similar and our brain does not have any more signposts to measure the passage of time. Psychologist William James wrote in Principles of Psychology that we have fewer memorable events as we age and there are less “firsts” in adulthood, which causes “the days and weeks [to] smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”
time pressure – as we grow old, we become busier and have many more responsibilities. We feel like there is never enough time to complete all our tasks and this may be perceived as time passing too quickly. Moreover, the types of tasks we engage ourselves in are more demanding, they require our full attention and concentration and leave no room for boredom, which would draw attention to the passing of time. While working on projects, reading, taking care of our career-related tasks, we become fully immersed in what we’re doing and hours come to pass like minutes.
forward telescoping – psychologists understand this phenomenon as our tendency to underestimate when significant events happened. We tend to believe important events are more recent than they actually are because we assume there would be a certain amount of unclarity attached to them if they happened so far in the past. As these events remained pristine in our memory, we attribute the fact that they have not faded to their recency. This is why we are shocked when we realize that it’s already been three years since graduation, or that our favorite jam was released ten years ago.
changes in body chemistry – A 2016 study suggests that the levels of dopamine may affect our time perception. In this study, mice had to signal whether intervals of time between two sounds were longer or shorter than 1.5 seconds while the activity of dopamine was measured and manipulated. When mice had their dopamine-producing cells stimulated, they thought the interval of time was longer, while in the case of dopamine suppression they thought the interval was shorter. If the influence of dopamine levels on time perception also applies to humans, this would constitute another reason why we perceive time to go faster as we age, since the dopamine levels decline as we get older, with 10% per decade. Another argument which favors this hypothesis is represented by people suffering of Parkinson’s disease, who typically have low dopamine levels and often underestimate how fast time is passing.
With these things in mind, we may want to make some adjustments to our lifestyle in order to try our best to manipulate our perception of the passing of time, such as breaking our routine and maintain our desire to experiment new things, or engaging in pleasurable activities which increase our dopamine levels.