The time displays on our clocks and the time we all experience is different. Each one of us experiences time in our own unique way. Though time is objective, our experience of it is subjective. Most of us have surely noticed that time seems to speed up as we age. Now numerous studies have confirmed this experience. Time appears to be moving much faster than it did in our childhood and young adulthood when, for instance, a single summer felt like a year.. Depending on one’s outlook and experience, the days, months, and years appear to offer either less or more time than usual. Even irrespective of age, we often experience time subjectively. When we are bored or in painful situations, time moves slowly. On the other hand, for one who is watching an entertaining film or engaged in interesting conversation, the time flies. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”
Researchers have not, thus far, been able to pinpoint the exact reason or reasons why the perception of time changes so radically as we age. While there are many theories, it remains a mysterious phenomenon. In 2005, two German researchers at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich conducted a very important study on time perception. Around 500 participants, ages 14 to 94 years, took part in the study. They were asked to fill out questionnaires relating to their perception of the passage of time. Possible answers ranged from “very slowly” to “very fast.” Results support the popular consensus that the passage of time seems to accelerate with age.
One convincing explanation of this old/young difference in time perception is that when we are getting old, our life often becomes highly repetitive, routine, and habitual. As there are hardly any new and unfamiliar experiences, the brain is not processing new information. Life remains by and large the same day after day – its hours smudged in sameness. On the other hand, when we are in childhood or later as adults, are brains are almost constantly processing fresh new experiences. The person is seeing things for the first time, witnessing new places, meeting new people, learning new ideas, concepts, and skills. Therefore, the researcher explained, “As a result, our early years tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer.” (Scientific American: “Why Does Time Seem to Speed Up with Age?” July 2016)As we grow older, most people are now mostly on default mode, thinking and experiencing the same things again and again, with few significant or challenging changes in routine life. This makes the time seem to run faster. We will then always be surprised when the next Diwali season or Christmas comes up so soon after the last one. How quickly the new festival time has arrived!
Many of us also start to feel “settled” once we enter our late forties or early fifties. Our children may leave the nest for college or job, get married, start a family…and life becomes comparatively comfortable and settled as the struggle period is, for the most part, over. At this point, many find themselves “mellowing out” – and feeling more satisfied with life. This tends to be especially true when one reaches retirement from active service or a profession, and life becomes more routine and habitual. The same routine in the morning — going for a walk, practicing yoga, reading newspapers, checking email, having breakfast followed by the afternoon leg of similarly regular activities. This goes on and on. Barring new experiences, now much fewer in number (such as marriages, graduations, visiting children abroad, the birth of grandchildren, etc.),life moves along on expected lines. No newness in life. No new memories are excitedly added. Life speeds up and now starts sprinting to the finish line. And then alas! It’s New Year’s Eve again!
Recently, a study concluded that “Physics is the reason time seems to fly when you’re grown.” According to Adrian Bejan, the J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, ‘’the present is different from the past because the mental viewing has changed, not because somebody’s clock rings. Days seemed to last longer in your youth because the young mind receives more images during one day than the same mind in old age.” He further explains that ‘the fact that adults have fewer new experiences than children contributes to the appearance that time is moving faster. Therefore as we get older time becomes slower because no new experiences and so no processing of images.
Now the question arises as to whether we can slow down the pace of time as we get older? Yes, we can do it by being open to trying and experiencing new things in life. For starters, we can minimize our routines. Start reading books of interest, visit new places, make new friends, start playing a new sport such as golf or pickleball (excellent choices for older people), and engage in mental games like Sudoku. What we are required to do is break down the walls of your comfort zone, come out from the areas of comfort and ease and start venturing into new fields, develop new habits, and learn new skills. All these activities will definitely help anybody to escape the sense of loneliness and vulnerability. Secondly, they will go a long way toward sidestepping age-related mental diseases like dementia and, most importantly, help you to lead a healthy and fulfilling life.