Time flies when you're older

It took what felt like an agonizing hour or more to get through my 40-minute high school algebra class. And now, in my 70s, sitting in front of my desktop computer reading the morning newspapers for an hour feels as if only 30 minutes have gone by.

Time does seem to go faster as we get older, even if, in reality, it doesn’t.

There are several theories about why this is so, including one that connects time’s passage with our experiences. Time appears to crawl when we are young, life is fresh and we consistently absorb new information. As we get older, familiarity because of repetition appears to accelerate the ticking of the clock.

(The New Yorker seemed to support that theory in its Nov. 13 issue when Steve Coll began The Talk of the Town column, “It was only a year ago that voters delivered Donald Trump to the presidency. It feels much longer. Trump’s Twitter storms and erraticism can seem to slow time.”)

Other theories exist.

One noted last year by Christian Yates, a lecturer at the University of Bath, is that time speeds up as we age because as our metabolism slows it matches the deceleration of our heartbeat and breathing.

“Children’s biological pacemakers beat more quickly, meaning that they experience more biological markers (heartbeats, breaths) in a fixed period of time, making it feel like more time has passed,” Mr. Yates wrote in the online publication Quartz.

On that note, Ana Swanson, now a reporter for The New York Times, wrote in a Washington Post Wonkblog two years ago that “our sense of time is governed by biological processes that run the body.

“Researchers have long shown that we experience time as going by much slower when our body temperature is higher. So perhaps it’s not a coincidence that children have a higher body temperature than adults, and also experience time more slowly.”

She pointed to an intriguing theory, first posited by French philosopher Paul Janet in 1897; it refers to the proportion of your age compared with your life span as an explanation of why time seems to accelerate as we age.

Time stretches out for a 1 year old because one year represents 100 percent of the baby’s life, explained Ms. Swanson. When you’re 8, a year is 12.5 percent of your life. At 18, a year is 5.56 percent of your life. And so on, until at 98 you’re at about 1 percent of your life.

“This idea has stunning implications,” she wrote. “It means that parents actually see their children grow up much faster than children perceive themselves to be. … It might also explain why kids on car trips are always asking that annoying question, ‘Are we there yet?’ A car journey actually feels longer to kids than it does to adults.”

One thing we all know for sure is that time flies when we’re having fun.

Which really means that “engaging in a novel exploit makes time appear to pass more quickly in the moment,” wrote James M. Broadway, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Santa Barbara, and Brittney Sandoval, a graduate of the same school. Their essay appeared in the Scientific American Mind.

“But,” they wrote, “if we remember that activity later on, it will seem to have lasted longer than more mundane experiences.

“The reason? Our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period. In other words, the more new memories we build on a weekend getaway, the longer that trip will seem in hindsight.”

To return to Mr. Yates, the Bath lecturer, and the theory that the sense of time is related to the amount of information we absorb: The bombardment of President Trump’s near-daily assaults on our senses may be applied.

“With lots of new stimuli, our brains take longer to process the information, so the period of time feels longer,” Mr. Yates wrote. So “the more familiar we become with the day-to-day experiences of life, the faster time seems to run.”

What’s behind this is the neurotransmitter dopamine, whose levels drop from the age of 20 onward, “making time appear to run faster,” Mr. Yates wrote.

The trick to slow time, then, is to keep having new experiences. Mr. Trump’s verbal and Twitter outbursts can help.

Richard C. Gross, a reporter and editor for 40 years at home and abroad, is a former opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun. His email is rcg51@comcast.net.

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