When asked to recall events in their life, most people will report that their childhood seemed to last much longer at that time than their adult years have. Most would even say that time seems to speed by quickly as one gets older.
On the other hand, ask a child how fast time passes and they will likely give an opposite response, especially if they’re watching the clock during school hours. Of course the answer from the logical scientific perspective would answer the question of whether time passes faster later in life with one of the most simple rules of logic; something either “is” or “is not”, so either time passes faster or it does not. Since time is measured in defined increments of minutes, seconds and hours, as most readers probably guessed correctly, time does not literally pass faster as one ages. However, it does seem that way to most adults with each passing year! Although the concept may sound somewhat confusing, there are several good explanations for the strong feeling of time passing faster – and they all relate to perception.
In order to understand the concepts on this subject presented by psychologists and neuroscientists, it is important to first comprehend how the human brain works in accordance with time perception. The areas of the brain used in this perception are the cerebellum, cerebral cortex and the basal ganglia. Humans have their own nuerological internal “timekeeper” called a circadian rhythm. This is an instinctive attribute caused by the suprachiasmatic nuclei, making humans aware of time passing and also plays a part in waking and sleeping patterns. The actual passing of time as perceived by humans is deemed as subjective by scientists, so theories are still speculative since each person’s perception of time duration is variable and not necessarily measurable in any exact scientific units.
Perception in relation to time and memory is somewhat like an illusion – a person may think they are viewing something phenomenal when in fact it is simply an optical trick. Memory and time work on the brain in this way, causing a form of “trick” that causes humans to think that time is actually passing slower in some instances than others. In a publication of Nature magazine printed in 1953, researchers called this phenomenon the “Kappa Effect“.
From childhood to early adulthood, a person will encounter new experiences constantly. During each new experience humans must create a mental framework or template for the thing, idea or event that will aid in future memory and recognition of it. In the world of cognitive psychology, the term for such a mental template is “schema“. Famous French developmental psychologist Jean Piaget coined the term in 1926 and his idea is now found in every college psychology textbook and adopted by many schools of thought.
When each new schema is formed, often the person remembers the time at which it occurred. For example if a child went on an amusement park ride for the first time, he would likely remember the experience vividly and be able to describe the event. He would likely remember any other first experiences in another specific event also – but perhaps not as much for each succeeding year for the same events. As time passes, many psychologists agree that humans seems to remember the initial schema that identified an occurrence, idea or thing. Consequently as these same experiences are repeated, people are less likely to recall each succeeding event.
Another theory that supports the concept of schemas is that proposed by Jason Brown of New York University Medical Center’s Department of Neurology. He suggests that the mind transforms actual physical space-time moments into clusters that overlap one another in unfolding capsules. These capsules are then immediately replaced by succeeding capsules as time continually passes. He then suggests that the continual replacement of these capsules over time creates an illusion to the human who is looking back on the past – and the result of the illusion is due to the brain computing time in longer or shorter increments than what actually took place by blending the moments in between them together.
UCLA graduate Philip Yaffe also proposed a good theory to this time-related phenomenon. After using an online search engine for results about the psychology of time and why time seems to pass faster with age, he was unsatisfied with the explanations offered to him, so he thought about it and then explained that the uneven perceptions of time over the years are related to anticipating an experience and then looking back on it in retrospect. He says that when we anticipate an event, time seems to pass slower, but when we look back on that same event afterward, it seems to have passed quickly, as does the time following it. In relation to this idea is the commonly-experienced concept that undesirable events seem to last a long time and exciting or fun events seem to last only a few seconds.
These are all very interesting theories and do seem to have a great deal of applicable value to the idea of time seeming to pass faster as the aging process continues.
Professionals studying the concept all seem to agree that units of time which have lapsed are computed in our brains in smaller fragments of time than what they were in reality at the time they were occurring.
This idea does seem to be the best explanation for the phenomenon.
Think about it – every person can recount an event from several years ago, but they likely cannot recount the exact details and thoughts experienced in each second of the entire event.
In relation to the idea of schemas, we humans remember concepts or whole ideas from our experiences in the past. If we were able to remember all the thoughts, feelings and emotions felt during every moment of our life, time wouldn’t seem to pass as so quickly as it does as we get older.
Could it be that time seems to pass more quickly with age because our memories of past events are less complete, and are simpler…devoid of many details?
And could it be that that’s all the time we have for this particular blog post?
Man, that went fast…I must be getting old. 😉