Glenn Stok has a Master of Science degree and applies his research to educate his readers with information on science and philosophy.
As we grow older, our perception of time changes. Here are several reasons why we experience time going faster as we age, a phenomenon that we all eventually experience.
1. We Measure Periods of Time in Ratios
As we grow older, periods of our lives diminish into smaller and smaller segments of our entire life span.
Here is a simple example that should make this clear:
- When you were ten years old, the last ten years represented your entire life.
- When you're 40, the last ten years represent only a quarter of your life.
- When you're 60, the last ten years represent only one-sixth of your life.
That's a small fraction, and the same period will become a smaller and smaller segment of your life as you age.
Here's another way to explain how ratios affect our judgment:
When we grow up from, say, five years old until we are ten, we doubled our age. We feel that a lot of time had gone by. After all, we just doubled our age!
Then when we continue through life from ten to twenty, once again, we doubled our age. But wait! What's different now? That prior period was just five years. Now all of a sudden, it was ten years!
Now consider aging twenty to forty. We doubled our age again, but this time twenty years has passed!
Every time we double our age, twice as many years go by. That is the ratio effect.
We think of the last phase at the same length of time. However, that phase is twice the length of time as the previous phase of our lives.
The ratio keeps shrinking, causing the illusion that time is speeding up.
2. Repetitive Tasks Make Our Days More Monotonous
When we were very young, every day was filled with new discoveries and learning experiences. We look back on that and visualize time filled with memories.
As we get older, we lack the constant discovery of new experiences we had every day in our childhood.1
Our days become more monotonous with repetitive tasks, and we spend much less time on new experiences. That doesn’t leave a fulfilling memory of any sort to look back on. It almost becomes an empty feeling of the recent past days.
When we allow this kind of a void in our lives, we have nothing much to look back on. That causes us to have a feeling that time has passed by more quickly.
3. Fewer New Experiences Cause a Void in Time
Claudia Hammond, the author of “Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception,” explains that as we get older, we have fewer new experiences.2
When we look back on the prior week or the previous year, we see fewer memorable events to fill that period than we had decades earlier.
A newborn is continually filling each moment with learning something new. In our formative years, we are cramming each day with learning and experiencing something new. Therefore, when we look back on the prior week or month, we have lots of memories. The effect is that time had moved on very slowly.
As we get older, we fill our time with fewer new experiences, so we can’t recall anything of value from what we did in the previous year. Therefore our impression is that time is whizzing by since our years seem more void of refreshing experiences. That void causes the illusion that time is shrinking.
4. Time Pressure Affects Our Perception
In a Scientific American article, the author refers to a study published by Steve Janssen, William Friedman, and Makiko Naka (Hokkaido University in Japan).3
They questioned 868 participants, comparing their feeling “time pressure” in their lives ten years ago and currently.
They discovered that the notion of “time pressure” contributed significantly to their perception of time. The results also showed that age made no difference. Those who felt time pressure ten years ago had as much sense that time was flying by as later in life.
The conclusion is that feeling pressure for lack of time to perform tasks has a greater impact on the sense that time goes faster. Merely being older has little to do with it.
5. We Fill Our Adult Time With Chores
Children have fewer responsibilities to fill their days, and time feels like it drags on for that reason.
As we get older, we certainly never have the time to complete our chores and other tasks we want to do. Therefore we always feel like we're running out of time.
Looking back on that leaves the illusion that time must be going faster.
6. Our Vision of the Flow of Time
We live in a three-dimensional world, defined by length, width, and height. Time is the fourth dimension. We can move in any direction through our 3-D space, but we can only move through time in one direction.
We are quite familiar with the space in which we live, but time isn’t so apparent. We often tend to lose track of it. If we don’t pay attention, we might miss an important meeting or be late for catching a plane.
Other things can go wrong too, we might feel that time overlaps itself, and we get the feeling of déjà vu. The worst thing is how time seems to speed up as we get older.
7. Theory of Relativity and Time Perception
Albert Einstein mathematically showed that time slows down the faster one moves. In October 1971, scientists proved his theory by carrying an atomic clock in an airplane going eastward and another westward.
These clocks were compared to a reference atomic clock on Earth at the U.S. Naval Observatory. The eastward flying clock lost approximately 59 nanoseconds, and the westward clock gained about 273 nanoseconds.4
Besides, the clock on Earth is traveling 1,000 miles per hour since that's how fast the Earth is rotating, and that difference is relative to the entire situation.
While we are happily going about our lives on Earth, we wouldn't be aware of those speed differences due to motion because it's all relative.
Within our frame of reference, any changes to the speed of time would be completely unnoticed due to the relativity theory.
- This example will make that clear:
Imagine you are on a moving train. As it changes speed and direction, you continue to enjoy the trip in the confined world of the train’s interior without any actual consideration of the changes taking place relative to the rest of the world.
Say, for example, you have a drink of coffee in the train’s dining car. To you, that cup of coffee is sitting stationary in front of you. But in reality, it’s moving at the speed of the train.
For a little levity while on the subject: When Einstein was young, his wife had complained that it was over so fast when they were having sex. Einstein said to her, "It's all relative."
8. Do Time Glitches Cause Déjà Vu?
Other things can go wrong. Time might overlap itself, and we get the feeling of déjà vu.
What if time, itself, has glitches? What if it has episodes of repeating or missing segments? Could that actually happen?
Imagine if segments of time repeat due to some instability in the space-time continuum. Is that when we experience déjà vu, or is that all in our minds?
The flow of time is a series of “now” that is continuously advancing from the past to the future. What happens if one of those “now” moments is missing? Is that what happens when we can't recall what we wanted to get from another room once we get there? That happens with most people once in a while.
Let me put all that to rest. I'm just playing with your mind. If that were true, we would never notice any glitches like that anyway since we are part of the world flowing along the timeline.
- Duplication of "now" moments would merely be repetition without any knowledge we were there before, because "before" becomes the present moment again.
- We would only leap over the missing moments without any awareness and simply continue with our lives.
In either case, we would never know there was a problem with the fabric of space-time. Then again, maybe something does go terribly wrong.
As you see, there are many explanations for the experience we all seem to have with time speeding up as we age.
In my opinion, the most critical is the lack of new experiences to fill our time and make it feel whole. It’s a good reason to make an effort to seek new things to do in our old age frequently.
- Richard A. Friedman. (July 20, 2013). Fast Time and the Aging Mind. - The New York Times
- Claudia Hammond. (May 28, 2013). “Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception” - Harper Perennial; Reprint edition
- Jordan Gaines Lewis. (December 18, 2013). “Why Does Time Fly as We Get Older?” - Scientific American
- J.C. Hafele and R. E. Keating, Science 177, 166 (1972)
© 2014 Glenn Stok
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on January 25, 2019:
Sherry Hewins - Very interesting! I can’t say that she’s wrong, because it actually makes sense. lol.
Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on January 25, 2019:
It's funny, my 83 year old mom has a theory that time really is speeding up. Her evidence, everyone says so. She says people don't really live longer than they did in the past, it's just that time is going faster. They live more years, but the same amount of time.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on January 25, 2019:
Ken Burgess - That's an extremely good explanation. Responsibilities definitely take time away from self-indulging activities. That sure is another reason for experiencing time going faster. It's a pure lack of time remaining.
Ken Burgess from Florida on January 25, 2019:
Interesting article, a topic I have considered of an on the past few years.
I would say much has to do with what you are doing, as you noted, is it all repetitive, is life stagnant, is there a lack of new activities or discoveries?
If so, time will pass quickly.
I also think as adults we are ladened with more responsibilities and have to compartmentalize our days and months for jobs, holidays, etc. time belongs less to us and more to other responsibilities leaving little time to do what we want, which is not something experienced by children (tho they do have to contend with school).
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on September 27, 2017:
Rochelle Frank - I'm just a few years behind you and I have the same feeling.
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on September 27, 2017:
I think your ideas on our experience of time as a percentage of our life are right on and have also seen the train analogy as making sense to my "unscientific" mind.
I can remember having a lucid "now" moment when I was seven years old, thinking that people lived about 70 years and I had about 10 times that much time left.
Now that I am past 70, it seems like quite a short time ago.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on November 03, 2014:
Nathanville - Being that you have a knowledge of quantum physics, it means a lot to me that you found this well-written. Thank you for the feedback.
Arthur Russ from England on November 03, 2014:
A most engaging article; with quantum physics being one of my interests I spent the ‘time’ to read this well written article a pleasurable read.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on October 28, 2014:
Iris Draak - Thanks, I thought this was a pretty valid explanation why time goes faster as we age, but other reasons as just as plausible.
Cristen Iris from Boise, Idaho on October 28, 2014:
Glenn, that is interesting. I particularly liked your idea of time going faster being a ratio thing. You certainly gave me a new way of thinking about things. Interesting.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on October 27, 2014:
MsDora - Laughter is good. Glad you enjoyed it.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 27, 2014:
You managed to make me laugh even while I'm straining my mind to take it all in. The section of the acceleration of time really gets my attention! Wonderful thoughts. Excellent read!