When I was a child, my grandpa would tell me: “Time moves faster the older you get. You watch, Jessica. Your life will pass you by in the blink of an eye!” I was an anxious child, and these words sunk into me. So much so that every New Year’s Eve I would cry because another year had passed, and I was getting old.
My grandpa’s words came back to me recently on my son’s first birthday. So much had changed in his first year, not only with respect to his appearance (goodbye black hair, hello blond) but also with respect to his abilities (long gone are the days where he would stay put wherever we laid him; now we are constantly running after him). Where had the time gone?
My grandpa was right: There is scientific evidence to show that your experience of time gets faster as you age. In one landmark study by psychologist Mangan (1996), participants were asked to count out three minutes. Younger participants (19-24 years) were accurate in counting out the three minutes. In comparison, older participants (60-80 years) took longer to count out the three minutes. If they had checked the clock afterward, they would have been surprised to see that more time had passed than they perceived.
If time does move faster as we age, why might that be? It turns out, we have an ‘internal clock,’ which is our perception of how time passes. Though there is discussion about what exactly impacts this clock, there are two ideas in particular that make a lot of sense to me.
First, when we’re children, everything is new to us. Novel experiences impact our brain chemistry, processing, and internal clock to ultimately slow our experience of time. As we get older, we settle into routines. Days can blend into one, as my retired parents tell me.
A second idea concerns thinking of time logarithmically. That is, a year passing in my life feels very different from my son’s experience of his first year because the amount of time we have each lived is not the same. A year in my life is, proportionately, 1/33rd of my life. For my son, the past six months of his life were proportionately half of his life.
But there’s hope. If we want to slow our experience of time even just a bit, we can control how many new experiences we have, and try to see the world with renewed curiosity. Just like my grandpa also used to tell me: Live every day like it were your last.
Jessica Alleva, Assistant Professor at fhe faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience