Why time seems to travel faster for older people

It is a cliché that older people seem to think that time goes by faster than younger people. Christian Yates reviews the various theories that purport to explain this.

This apparently accelerated time travel is not a result of filling our adult lives with grown-up responsibilities and worries. Research does in fact seem to show that perceived time moves more quickly for older people making our lives feel busy and rushed.

Yates examines some of the theories put forth.

One idea is a gradual alteration of our internal biological clocks. The slowing of our metabolism as we get older matches the slowing of our heartbeat and our breathing. Children’s biological pacemakers beat more quickly, meaning that they experience more biological markers (heartbeats, breaths) in a fixed period of time, making it feel like more time has passed.

Another theory suggests that the passage of time we perceive is related to the amount of new perceptual information we absorb. With lots of new stimuli our brains take longer to process the information so that the period of time feels longer. This would help to explain the “slow motion perception” often reported in the moments before an accident. The unfamiliar circumstances mean there is so much new information to take in.

Yates reports on one suggestion that our perception of time follows a logarithmic scaling pattern.

The idea is that we perceive a period of time as the proportion of time we have already lived through. To a two-year-old, a year is half of their life, which is why it seems such an extraordinary long period of time to wait between birthdays when you are young.

To a ten-year-old, a year is only 10 percent of their life, (making for a slightly more tolerable wait), and to a 20-year-old it is only 5 percent. On the logarithmic scale, for a 20-year-old to experience the same proportional increase in age that a two-year-old experiences between birthdays, they would have to wait until they turned 30. Given this view point it’s not surprising that time appears to accelerate as we grow older.

We commonly think of our lives in terms of decades – our 20s, our 30s and so on – which suggests an equal weight to each period. However, on the logarithmic scale, we perceive different periods of time as the same length. The following differences in age would be perceived the same under this theory: five to ten, ten to 20, 20 to 40 and 40 to 80.

This article reports on a small study that sought to directly test the proposition that the passage of time differed between older and younger people.

Time really does seem to pass more quickly as you get older. Last weekend
at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington DC,
researchers reported that elderly and young people perceive time

Peter Mangan, a psychologist at Clinch Valley College in Wise, Virginia, and
his colleagues asked 25 young people aged between 19 and 24, and 15 older people
aged between 60 and 80, to estimate a 3-minute interval by counting “seconds”
using a “1, 1000, 2, 1000, …” technique. The young adults did this almost
perfectly, averaging 3 minutes 3 seconds. But an average of 3 minutes 40 seconds
flew by before the older people thought that just 3 minutes had elapsed.

It was not that the older adults were simply less bothered about time, the
researchers found, as their volunteers were university teachers and other people who had not retired and were used to sticking to tight timetables. “I could not
believe that these people, who were very concerned with the time could be
consistently so far over in their estimate,” says Mangan.

Mangan speculates that the brain’s internal clock—which is different
from the circadian clock that controls daily cycles of activity—runs more
slowly in elderly people. As a result, the pace of life appears to speed up.

As people age, notes Mangan, brain cells that produce the chemical messenger
dopamine begin to deteriorate in the basal ganglia and substantia nigra, brain
regions known to be involved in the internal clock.

The study is interesting though the sample size is far too small to take the conclusions too seriously. I hope that someone will do so with larger samples. What I would like to see are also other studies where the time intervals are too large to be estimated by counting off that way. For example, by placing people in rooms for a few days where there are no clues as to the passage of time, it would be interesting to see if there was a difference in perception of the elapsed time.


  1. anat says

    My husband thinks he has been able to slow down his perception of time’s passage by a combination of meditation and being more engaged with multiple new challenges at work. FWIW.

  2. johnson catman says

    For probably thirty years, I have postulated that the decreasing percentage of the total life causes the perception of time passing more quickly as we age. It just seems logical to me. I never had anything to back it up though.

    As a side note, the three minute counting test would not work on me. I am a counter, and I am pretty good at hitting minutes within about a second. I am probably an outlier though. As for putting people in rooms without time cues, that sounds too much like torture.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … placing people in rooms for a few days where there are no clues as to the passage of time…

    By the time you’ve assembled a group of people willing to forego TV, Facebook, Twitter, and blog commenting for whole! days! in! a! row!, you’ve collected a bunch of freaks who can tell you nothing about Normal People©.

  4. cartomancer says

    This is absolutely not a modern preoccupation. Medieval philosophers and theologians pondered the issue eight hundred years ago. One theory, as put forward by Alexander Nequam at the beginning of the thirteenth century, was that perception of time was governed by one’s biochemical make-up (“constitution” as he put it), and hence older people, whose constitution tended towards being colder and drier than that of younger people, perceived time to pass more quickly. He also thought this would explain how different animals have different perceptions of time, with shorter-lived animals so constituted to see time pass more slowly than longer-lived ones. He speculated that exceptionally long-lived animals such as the Phoenix would see time rush by very quickly indeed.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yates reports on one suggestion that our perception of time follows a logarithmic scaling pattern.

    That’s what I’ve thought for a while now. And I vaguely recall reading that we perceive numbers of objects, and quantities, the same way. Perhaps distances as well?

  6. says

    I’ve long argued that the ideal state of being for people who want long life is boredom. You won’t actually live longer, but you’ll feel like it.

  7. Lofty says

    The fun thing about getting older is how you can make breakfast, morning tea and lunch run together by the simple process of goofing off, either on the internet or with a good book. Once upon a time whole life experiences would fill the gaps between these events.

  8. says

    I’m busier than I was when I was 20, and when I was 20 I was busier than I was when I was 10.

    Fucking social ‘scientists’ make me ill. They used 15 older people and 25 younger people as a sample? Presumably all americans, right? Could it be that in some societies people have different activity cycles? Did they ask someone who is bored?

    I have noticed that time moves MUCH SLOWER when I am IN AN AIRPORT than when I am COOKING a good meal. A social scientist would say it’s the wine.

  9. flex says

    When I was driving home today, the DJ mentioned that today was the birthday of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome (stay with me, it is related to the OP).

    As part of the discussion about the metronome, the DJ mentioned that while many composers used metronome notations in their scores, musicians often complain that the metronome markings seem too slow. So many musicians will use the metronome markings as a practice guide, setting the tempo slower in order to get the fingering (etc.) correct, then slowly speed up the metronome until you reach a speed where the musician feels the tempo should be at. Then abandoning the metronome to allow some variation in the individual rhythms during performances.

    But I had a thought, because I had read this post, that possibly music written by older composers, who’s sense of time is a little slower than the younger musicians who play the music, would account for metronome markings in scores always seeming slower than the music should be played.

    I certainly recognize that this is probably a very silly idea, but it might be a testable one. Get a couple recording made, one set to the composers tempo and one set at a slightly faster tempo. Then play it to people of various ages to see if teenagers think the faster tempo music sounds better, while the octogenarians think that the slower tempo sounds better.

    My personal opinion; you wouldn’t see any affect. But I think it would be an interesting experiment.

  10. flex says

    I have noticed that time moves MUCH SLOWER when I am IN AN AIRPORT than when I am COOKING a good meal. A social scientist would say it’s the wine.

    I’ve tried drinking wine in an airport bar. It doesn’t speed up the time for me.

  11. trurl says

    I have come to think it is just a trick of the memory. If you pay attention to each moment, time seems to pass just as slowly as it ever did. It is only when looking back that it seems shorter. Of course paying attention is the tricky part.

    Some things make me pay attention more than others. My wife and I have both remarked that a good long bicycle ride puts you in a time warp where it seems to take forever but then it’s over before you know it.

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