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Pragmatic and Theoretical Reasons Time Goes Faster as We Age

Author:

Glenn Stok has a Master of Science degree. He enjoys studying the nature of time and envisioning theories of space-time continuum.

Every time we double our age, twice as many years go by.

Every time we double our age, twice as many years go by.

This is a review of eight reasons why we experience time going faster as we get older. Five are pragmatic explanations and the last three are theoretical considerations.

Five Sensible Reasons Why Time Seems to Go Faster as We Grow Older

Many things affect our judgment of time. As we age and have more years behind us, our perception of time changes.

Here are five causes of this phenomenon that we all experience as we grow older. Later, I'll discuss three other explanations that are more theoretical, but much more amusing.

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 have gone by since the last time we doubled it. This 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 the Illusion That Time Is Shrinking

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 memory of fewer new experiences leaves us with the illusion that time is shrinking.

Time Pressure Influences Perception of Time

Time Pressure Influences Perception of Time

4. Time Pressure Contributes to Our Perception of Time

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, other than the fact that as we get older, we feel more time pressure.

5. Adult Time Is Filled With Chores

A loyal follower and reader of my articles had offered this explanation:

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.

Three Theoretical Explanations Why Time Goes Faster as We Age

The following are the more theoretical explanations that I promised you. I apply a scientific approach to this review.

1. Our Vision of the Flow of Time

We live in a three-dimensional world, defined by length, width, and height. Time is a fourth dimension. We can move in any direction through our 3-D space, but we can only move through time in one direction.

The flow of time is a series of “now” that is continuously advancing from the past to the future.

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.

2. Our Perception Based on the Theory of Relativity

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 going 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 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."

Albert Einstein with his first wife, Mileva Marić-Einstein. Married 1903 to 1919.

Albert Einstein with his first wife, Mileva Marić-Einstein. Married 1903 to 1919.

3: Is Déjà Vu Caused by Time Glitches?

This last discussion is merely for amusement with a totally theoretical idea.

Our appreciation of time gives us the ability to comprehend a reality that's stable and consistent. However, is it really?

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?

Earlier I mentioned that time is a series of “now.” 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.

  • The duplication of "now" moments would merely be another repetition without any knowledge we were there before, because "before" is the present moment again.
  • And 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.

In Conclusion

As you see, there are many explanations for the experience we all seem to have with time speeding up as we age. Which one affects you?

They all contribute to the phenomenon in one way or another. It’s unique to each individual. Nevertheless, it eventually affects us all in time.

References

  1. Richard A. Friedman. (July 20, 2013). Fast Time and the Aging Mind. - The New York Times
  2. Claudia Hammond. (May 28, 2013). “Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception” - Harper Perennial; Reprint edition
  3. Jordan Gaines Lewis. (December 18, 2013). Why Does Time Fly as We Get Older?” - Scientific American
  4. J.C. Hafele and R. E. Keating, Science 177, 166 (1972)

© 2014 Glenn Stok

Comments

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 January 24, 2019:

It's not easy to explain Aisling. Let me know how she understands it after reading my explanation.

Aisling Ireland on January 24, 2019:

I was trying to explain this phenomenon to my goddaughter the other day. I was not exactly successful. :-) Now, I can just direct her to this article!

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on June 16, 2018:

Margaret Minnicks - Wouldn’t it be nice if the second half of the year slowed down! Thanks for the analogy — it seems the same with me that the ball dropped in Times Square just a few days ago. Can’t believe it’s already June.

Margaret Minnicks from Richmond, VA on June 15, 2018:

Glenn, thanks a lot for answering the question I have had for a while now that I am older. The year is half over, and it seems like the ball just dropped in Times Square at the end of 2017.

You have given me a lot to think about. Perhaps the second half of the year won't go so fast.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on June 15, 2018:

Robert Sacchi - You’re correct about those three directions. However, if you want to get technical, there are more directions...

The Earth wobbles with our moon. It also moves with our solar system as we revolve around our galaxy, the Milky Way.

In addition to that, we are moving away from the center of the universe as the entire universe is expanding since the Big Bang.

But I doubt any of that has anything to do with our sensation of time moving faster.

Robert Sacchi on June 15, 2018:

You did a great job of quantifying how time seems to go faster as we get older.

The Earth is actually moving in 3 directions; rotating on its axis, revolving around the sun, and falling through space, correct?

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 September 27, 2017:

Absolutely Marisa! I can't believe I left that out. When we allow a void in our lives, we have nothing to look back on—causing the feeling that time has passed by more quickly. I have days like that, when I'm relaxing and doing nothing. Those days shoot by like nothing!

Kate Swanson from Sydney on September 27, 2017:

Interesting to read another theory. The theory I like is this:

Our brains retain the memory of new events and experiences, and quickly discard the memory of routine or repetitive ones. When we're young, we're having lots of new experiences, so when we look back on (say) the last week, we have lots of memories. When we're older, we have far fewer new experiences, so when we look back on last week, we have no memories of what we did. Therefore our impression is that it must have "whizzed past" even though, at the time, it actually didn't.

It's a good reason to make an effort to constantly seek out new things to do in our old age.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on November 19, 2015:

bradmasterOCcal - Now that's a very good analysis of a reason why we experience time to pass quicker as we age.

Brad on November 19, 2015:

As for your topic here. The answer is simple, people only remember certain events and not the totality of their history. So they flip the pages in their mind which is filtered by their brain, and filtered events are few compared to the total.

It is an illusion generated by the brain, and it is different for everyone.

As people get older, they do more reviewing than creating new events. while the young are busy creating new events, and rarely review them. At some point, each individual hits the point where new, and review become equal, and then may reverse to review and new.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on February 23, 2015:

vox vocis - Yes indeed, Jasmine. Many things we consider "reality" are simply due to our perception, which is limited by our own mind's capabilities. Thanks for stopping by.

Jasmine on February 22, 2015:

I must agree with Einstein - time really is relative! I don't think even think time is real, or it may be real in our reality or perception of reality. I absolutely believe in other time dimensions and in eternity. Interesting topic!

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.

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on October 31, 2014:

Wow, Glenn... As much as I've pondered parallel universes over the years, the possibility that they could ever be out of sync never occurred to me. Yes, that could explain a lot of puzzling events that have no logical explanation, "logical" being the parameters with which one is already familiar. Thank you for sending me "outside the box"! ;D

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on October 29, 2014:

JamaGenee - A Parallel Universe can be a clue to a lot of occurrences that can't be explained, such as two people dreaming the same dream. As in your case, the other universe might have been out of sync with the one you're in, a few decades ahead in time. That's why I like this stuff. It opens a door to extreme thoughts.

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on October 29, 2014:

Glenn, I'm delighted to hear you and your girlfriend had the same dream. This a first! The few times I've related my story to others, they looked at me like I had two heads. Alas, my SO and I didn't marry, but we did stay in contact until a couple of years before he died, and had also lost contact with any mutual friends. I didn't learn of his passing until a year later, and needless to say, it was quite a shock to learn how closely the circumstances matched what "our" dream foretold.

Although off-topic, I also strongly believe in parallel universes, that we're all living simultaneously in two dimensions but only ever aware of one, a possibility not totally poo-pooed by quantum physics, but the technocalities are way over my head!

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 28, 2014:

Mike Marks - Yes, I heard of that explanation too. And I agree that it also has an effect on how quickly time passes. A newborn is constantly filling each moment with learning something new. As we get older, we fill our time with less and less newness. So our latter years seem more of a void in time than our earlier years.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on October 28, 2014:

JamaGenee - I had similar experiences with an old girlfriend and I having the same dream. It could also come from having similar daytime experiences or discussions. But I don't rule out other ideas for dreams about future events, such as the existence of the future already being recorded in a timeline. It's like a movie film. All the images of the future are on that roll of film. I'm sorry to hear about the lose of your husband. At least you had several decades with him.

Mike Marks on October 28, 2014:

the more "events" that occur during a certain period of time the more memories we have from that period of time, therefore that period of time seems longer or bigger... as children, every day is event as we encounter so many things for the first time... in older age we may have less events, or less impressive events, more just getting up to a routin that we could sleepwalk through, a little dinner, a little tv, back to sleep, so when you recall your 54th year it may seem shorter because there's less events to recall,,, so you might compare that to some illusion you hold of time speeding up or slowing down, being longer/shorter, bigger/smaller, etc. ... you might see this more clearly if you think of it in terms of a long or short summer, the summer you spent with the family crossing the country sightseeing, or the summer you sat on the back porch smoking cigarettes looking at the grass grow (though that boring summer watching the grass grow might have seemed longer while you were in the moments of experiencing it, its recall would seem shorter, though you might interprete its memory of drudgery and the clock ticking seconds between cigarettes as endless...)

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on October 28, 2014:

Glenn, I should've been a bit more clear about the "past, present and future" analogy. That is, that at any given point on the road, where you just came from is in the past, where you are now is only technically the "present" because more than likely you're thinking about your destination, which is "the future".

As for time being "fixed", one event convinced me isn't. When we were in our 20s, my Significant Other and I simultaneously had nearly identical dreams one night that foretold the circumstances of his death, which happened exactly as the dreams predicted...but not until several decades later. If time is fixed, we couldn't have "dreamed" an event that clearly was already recorded in the universe's "memory banks".

Just sayin...

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!

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on October 27, 2014:

mgt28 - Approaching the speed of light is also very interesting as mass becomes infinite. I appreciate your comments.

mgt28 on October 27, 2014:

Space-Time continuum, the theory says that time and space are not fixed dimensions but both can be stretched as you would a rubber pad. Although Newtonian mechanics is true, it is just a good approximation. When the speed of particles approaches the speed of light, things begin to misbehave. Just 10% of the speed of light! Your thinking is beautiful.

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