Why does time pass more quickly as you get older?

16 November

Our perception of time is influenced by a lot of different things. Time is rigorously linear in the real, external world, but your experience of time varies continuously, moment to moment, depending on what you’re doing or thinking about. If you’re really caught up in a problem, or you’re in the flow when you’re exercising, you’ll commonly suddenly realise loads of time has passed without you realising. So sometimes your cognitive process is influencing it – but yes, there’s a very <well-described change> associated with age as well. And that seems to be harder to account for in a simple way.

"It’s been argued that meditation might be able to help you reverse this and 'slow time back down'"

Certainly one of the things that varies as you get older is you just have more to think about, generally. A few years ago, I found my diary from when I was a teenager, and I just could not believe how much empty time I had. Whole days at the weekend, where I’d ring friends up or watch TV – though there wasn’t much on – and that was it. There just wasn’t much to do. And I felt a visceral reaction of jealousy, I thought “why can’t I have days like that??” And that was before I was a parent. Now I’m a parent too, there’s literally no time in the day where there’s not stuff I’m actively thinking about. Everything is filled up.

"There’s a very well-described change associated with age as well. And that seems to be harder to account for in a simple way" (Video from John Koenig's The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)

So partly it feels different because your brain is occupied by all the different demands of adulthood, so that seems to result in this effect of time disappearing. But there must be something else, because the sense of time speeding up carries on right through to really old age, when actually you’re most likely to be doing far less again. So there’s also an idea that there’s a much more base-level thing affecting your perception of time, which is simply how fast your brain is processing information. We know a lot of brain functions look like time keepers: they’re regular, they’re rhythmic. And there’s an argument that maybe that represents some kind of base rate of cognition, and maybe that changes over time.

It’s been argued that meditation might be able to help you reverse this and “slow time back down”. The jury is still out on this, but you will certainly find some pretty prominent cognitive neuroscientists who will agree with this. One theory is that you’re somehow getting control of these clock cycles and affecting your experience of time. We don’t know if that’s true, or if it’s an emotional mechanism where, because you’re relaxing, you’re affecting anxiety processes which put demands on your brain and change your perception of time. The research is not conclusive that it really works. But it’s certainly an area that’s got a lot of interest from people.

Click here to see our answer from Marc Wittmann, Research Fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health, Freiburg, Germany and author of Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time.

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