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Why Time Flies As We Get Older

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Physics offers explanation to why time flies as we get older

by John Anderer

DURHAM, N.C. — For many of us, when we think back to childhood summers or seemingly endless days spent in the classroom, these periods of time feel as though they stretched on forever. In comparison, our more recent years of adulthood often feel like they’ve passed us by in a flash. This is usually just chalked up as another one of the many peculiarities that come with growing older. Now, a fascinating study offers up a more scientific explanation: as we age, the speed in which our brains obtain and process images gradually slows, resulting in this temporal discrepancy in memories.

Simply put, this slowing of the brain’s imaging speed causes perception of time to speed up.

“People are often amazed at how much they remember from days that seemed to last forever in their youth,” says study author Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, in a release. “It’s not that their experiences were much deeper or more meaningful, it’s just that they were being processed in rapid fire.”

As we mature, the nerves and neurons in our brains also mature, growing in size and complexity. Consequently, new neural signals (memories), are faced with a longer path to travel than when we were young. Our nerves also deteriorate as we age, slowing down the flow of electrical signals throughout our minds.

These developments mean that it takes longer for new mental images and memories to be obtained and processed. One piece of evidence Bejan noted to back up his theory is how much more often infants’ eyes move in comparison to adults; children process images much faster than adults, leading to quicker eye movements and a rapid integration of information.

So, because older people are processing far fewer images within a given amount of time than they used to in their youth, it feels like time is passing at a faster rate.

“The human mind senses time changing when the perceived images change,” Bejan concludes. “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.”

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Imo its because when we are say 5 years old 1year is 20% of our life experience vs at 50 1year is 2%.

    The younger we are the less our brains have to form a persoective of time. Add to that as you age you end up getting busier and busier which seems to make time fly.

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  2. I think that there is also a connection to familiarity.
    The first time you drive a particular route it takes x amount of time, as you become more familiar with the route, i.e. you do it every day, the “time” it seems to take becomes less.
    I think this principle extends to all areas of life, not just driving a car.

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    • The first time you drive a particular route it takes x amount of time, as you become more familiar with the route, i.e. you do it every day, the “time” it seems to take becomes less. I think this principle extends to all areas of life, not just driving a car.

      JB_,
      Taking this one step further: When said things become “familiar”, there is a tendency to go on mental “autopilot” mode. And when on auto, we are less in the moment of “now”, and our minds drift off to other things.

      Your example of a car journey is case in point – I’m sure we have all had the experience of driving on a journey on the open road, one that we have done many times, and arriving at the destination and realising that it happened a lot “sooner” than we expected. or not remembering having driven though a town or two on the way, however passengers will clearly remember it. It is almost like being in a trance, which is a symptom of being on “auto pilot”.

      As the saying goes, “wake up an smell the coffee”, or “take time out and smell the roses.”

      Try going to a park or a library, sit down and clear your mind and stop thinking and just be in the moment of now for a couple of hours, and observe how slow time goes. They say that real martial arts experts than can match any opponents do so by being in the moment of now by having a clear mind, with no distraction and time appears to slow down for them.

      I believe time “speeding up” or “slowing down” is not a function of age per se, but of whether we are living “more in the moment of now”, or “less in the moment of now”. If you want to stop “time flying”, stop “throwing it away.” I tell people not to watch TV news. The minutes they spend watching political fiction wrapped up as “the single source of truth” on the POT, is time they will never get back.

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      • Totally agree DH, we could all gain some additional time by not watch the party political broadcast at 6pm, and as for the “soon to return” Breakfast” show, don’t get me started. I don’t know why anybody with ½ a brain would watch it.

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        • I don’t know why anybody with ½ a brain would watch it.

          JB_,

          You’ve answered your own question. 🙂 Those with only half a brain DO watch it because the thinking half of their brain is the half missing, leaving only the emotional half. Raised in a socialist school system they are intellectually lobotomised,

          They watch because they feel incomplete but do not want to think and are in any case incapable of doing so. So they gladly imbibe directions and statements that require no thinking and that resonate with their emotional half.

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  3. This has been known for a long time. When you are a child your metabolism goes much faster, making it feel as though time stretches out. As you age it slows down, making it feel as though time whips by quickly. That would be the same phenomenon being described in this post. The slower metabolism helps us to live longer.

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