The subjectivity of time: Why the years fly by as we get older


    8th October 2023 – (Hong Kong) Time is relative – we’ve all experienced how it seems to slow down when we’re bored and speed up when we’re having fun. But why does it feel like time progresses ever faster as we age? This phenomenon where time seems to accelerate with age is well established, but psychologists don’t agree on the cause.

    In a new paper, Professor Adrian Bejan argues that the reason is rooted in physics – specifically the speed of neural processing. As we get older, the rate at which our brains process visual data slows down. This results in us perceiving fewer visual ‘frames’ per second, and so time appears to speed up.

    The brain’s neural networks grow larger and more complex with age, explains Bejan. Electrical signals take longer to traverse the greater distances between neurons. Ageing also damages nerves, adding resistance that further slows signalling speed.

    Focusing on visual perception, Bejan suggests slower processing means our brains capture fewer images per second of actual time. Like a high-speed camera capturing thousands of frames per second, time seems to unroll slowly when we’re young because each second contains many more mental images.

    As Bejan puts it, “People are often amazed at how much they remember from days that seemed to last forever in their youth. It’s not that their experiences were much deeper or more meaningful, it’s just that they were being processed in rapid fire.”

    This eloquent hypothesis based on neuroscience and physics principles provides a compelling potential explanation for the common feeling that time speeds up with age. However, experimental research may be needed before the question is settled conclusively.

    The Toilet Paper Effect

    “Time can feel like a roll of toilet paper – it unrolls faster and faster the closer you get to the end.”

    This pithy quote vividly sums up the subjective acceleration of time in later life. The toilet paper effect, as it might be called, is well-documented by psychologists and social scientists. But what causes this phenomenon, which can trigger anxiety and regret over time slipping away?

    The sense of time speeding up is linked to stress, while slowing it down through mindfulness can promote relaxation. Hence interest in this topic has grown recently, as over 80% of people in a UK survey said time felt altered during the pandemic lockdowns.

    After decades of study, experts are untangling the mysteries of time perception. Some relate it to our lifespan – at age 5, a year is 20% of your life, so feels long. Others implicate changes in the ageing brain. A 2019 study suggests our visual processing slows with age, so we perceive fewer images and time speeds up.

    A new Hungarian study adds fresh insights. The researchers showed 2 one-minute videos to different age groups, one monotonous and one action-packed. While young kids saw the exciting video as longer, most adults and older children picked the boring one as longer – reflecting how we learn as kids to view time as absolute, not relative to perception.

    The study indicates a transition between ages 6-10 when we start judging time based on clocks, not our senses. This tracks with teaching kids time as a linear constant. “In our culture, we think about time as unstoppable,” explains psychology professor Zoltan Nadasdy. Adults just “sample it like stepping in a river.”

    Nadasdy believes adults lose the childlike fluidity of time bending to perception. We check clocks obsessively, so time drags when we’re bored and rushes during fun. Kids experience the opposite, as time expands to accommodate interesting events.

    This study highlights that adult and child perceptions differ, not that one is more accurate. “From a neurodiversity perspective, adults are not more able to make judgments of time,” says neuroscientist Patricia Costello. Kids process time subjectively, which may make it feel slower-moving.

    Evidence shows young kids do perceive time passing more slowly in the moment. Their neural transmission is physically slower, affecting time encoding. But this doesn’t explain retrospective acceleration of time. That’s more linked to life proportion – years represent smaller fractions as we age – and forming fewer new memories.

    Recapturing Time

    Do you want to slow your sense of time to recapture your younger years? Try these methods to elongate subjective time.

    Reflect on joyful experiences – integrate them into your life’s timeline. Listen to friends and family to “live parallel lives”, advises Nadasdy. This multiplies your experiences. View the world as a 4-year-old would. Fully engage with your environment, paying complete attention. It can slow down your perception of time passing. Focus on your breathing. Time how long you think one minute of mindfulness takes. This trains your body awareness of time.

    Introduce novelty that excites your brain – new places, people, skills and spontaneous activities. Forming fresh memories stretches time retrospectively. Vividly recall each day before bed. Cementing memories makes them more durable landmarks in your past.

    The ticking of the clock seems immutable. But how you relate to time needn’t be set. Blending childlike presence with an adult appreciation for fleeting moments can reshape your experience, elongating the subjective flow. Our perception of time may bend and quicken as we age on the calendar. But by awakening to the present, you can ensure your remaining days feel rich, full and well-lived.