If you’ve ever wondered where the week (or month, or year) has gone, you’re not alone. For most of us, the older we get, the faster time seems to fly by. What sinister plot is responsible for this? Turns out, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. And no, it’s got nothing to do with your age directly impacting the space-time continuum.
For all the talk of acceleration, time – of course – ticks by at a constant rate. But our perception of time is very much relative. As Albert Einstein once said, “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.”
Take a moment to think back to your earliest memories: a birthday party when you were five, your first school play, getting your driver’s licence, your first stolen kiss. These were new and exciting experiences at the time and thus, have been encoded into your memory. In comparison, familiar experiences can often fall by the wayside and blur together. For example, can you remember every single time you’ve driven a car or had a delicious meal?
As it turns out, we have the greatest ability to recall the memories we created between the ages of 10 and 30. This is known as the reminiscence bump. As we accumulate more of these ‘first-time’ experiences, what was once novel tends to become more familiar. This is by no means a new idea either. In 1890, psychologist William James theorised in his text, The Principles of Psychology, that time appears to speed up as we age because there are “fewer and fewer memorable events” to mark the passage of time.
It’s true, time flies when you’re having fun. One theory suggests that our perception of time varies depending on what we’re doing and whether it’s a positive experience or not. When we’re engaging in an activity that’s enjoyable or exciting, time seems to move faster in the moment. But when we look back on that same activity, it will seem like it lasted longer than our routine activities.
Ever been on a holiday jam-packed with novel experiences and felt in retrospect that it went for longer than it did? This curious phenomenon has been labelled the holiday paradox by psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond. For those who rarely or never engage in unique experiences, the years, and even the decades, can become indistinguishable from each other. This can give the impression of time speeding up.
So, where exactly does our sense of time come from? It turns out that our perception of time is ruled by our brains’ ‘internal clock’, a group of nerve cells that controls our circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioural changes which are largely influenced by light – much like how humans respond to light and darkness as triggers to wake up or go to sleep. You may recognise your internal clock as that nagging sensation when you linger in the shower when you’re late for work, or in the feeling that you’re a ‘morning person’.
As with all our brains’ processes, our internal clocks rely on a neurotransmitter, in this case dopamine, to function. As we get older, the brain cells responsible for the production of dopamine begin to deteriorate in the regions of our brains known to be involved in the functioning of our internal clocks. This means that as our dopamine levels naturally decrease in response to aging and our internal clocks slow, the years may seem to fly by even faster.
Imagine looking at the time and expecting it to be midday only to realise you’ve spent the entire day in front of the TV binge watching Game of Thrones. It might be time to make a change.
Since the perception of time is strongly influenced by both psychological and biochemical factors, there are many ways we can influence our perception of time as we age. Try staying open to new experiences and taking on the attitude of the ‘beginner’s mind’ – a mind that is open and eager to learn no matter what your chronological age.
This means continually keeping your brain active by learning new skills and exploring new places throughout your entire life. You could go back to school and finally study that subject you’ve always been interested in. Closer to home, you could take up a new hobby such as gardening, join a sports team or yoga class, or learn to draw at the local community centre.
If you feel like the years have been passing you by, rest assured, the clocks in your home are working just fine. Maybe you simply need to find new ways to enrich your daily experience. The good news is, no matter how old you are, the possibilities for maintaining a more youthful, ageless state of mind are endless.