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 differently.
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.