January 8th, 2018

Time’s acceleration

I don’t quite buy this, although I do think it’s harder to experience new things as one gets older. Or, at least, new fun things:

The older you get the more the days seem to fly by. Why is that?

Science is not short of explanations. “The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last,” the New Yorker’s Burkhard Bilger writes. “This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” neuroscientist David Eagleman tells him. Less is new and noteworthy for adults, so we remember less and time goes faster…

Part of the reason your 30s seem half as long as your 20s (I’m terrified of how long my 40s will seem), according to a new study out of the University of Kansas, is ‘chunking.’…dividing your experiences into larger categories or “chunks.”…

When the researchers conducted a series of lab experiments that encouraged subjects to think of their lives in chunks – asking them to draw pie charts of their activities in the current day or year, for example – they reported that time seemed to be passing more quickly.

But the explanation that makes by far the most sense to me is something I read about some time ago (I forget where) which is more mathematically oriented. It’s the idea that each unit of time—say, a year—represents a smaller and smaller fraction of your entire life as you get older, and seems to pass more quickly in part for that reason. When you’re four years old a year is 25% of the life you’ve already lived. When you’re twenty years old a year is 5%. Whey you’re fifty years old it’s 2%. You get the idea.

As you get older each unit of time is also a larger fraction of the time you have left. For example, take a man who turns 70 today. If you plug those figures into a life expectancy chart, on average he’ll live another 15 years, although of course there’s no guarantee. But that means a year for him is something like 6-7% of the time he’s got left. When he was 30 years old, it was about 2% of the years left to him on average. This adds to the sense of time running out, and the resultant sense of urgency and preciousness makes time seem to run more quickly.

Some people, of course, are impervious to all of this and never think about it. I’m not one of them.

24 Responses to “Time’s acceleration”

  1. AesopFan Says:

    I read about both the first two “explanations” some years ago and both made sense (the third, maybe). No reason they can’t all three be contributory, with other things no one has suggested yet.
    Hmm..sounds like a good SF story in there somewhere.

  2. Philu Says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that life is like a roll of toilet paper; the closer you get to the end, the faster it goes. That fits with Neo’s explanation when you think about it.

  3. neo-neocon Says:


    Yes, I heard that toilet paper analogy a while back, and I think it’s very apt.

  4. carl in atlanta Says:

    I was discussing this very subject with one of my colleagues a few months ago and he observed that one’s perception of the passage of time as one ages is like a roll of toilet paper:

    The more one uses the smaller the roll gets and the faster it spins….

    I guess that’s analogous to the “mathematical” explanation given in Neo’s post??

    Go Dogs!

  5. carl in atlanta Says:

    Argggh! Evcerybody’s heard about the the toilet paper roll!

    Foiled again by these slow-typing fingers of mine….

  6. Patrick Says:

    Hey Neo, read “The Magic Mountain”. Actually, that’s a long one, maybe just read the chapter titled “Soup Everlasting”, he gets into exactly this topic.

  7. Sam L. Says:

    My 30s were as long as my 20s; but then I got married half-way thru. Kids in my 40s thru 50s.

    I find the days now are just as long, but the years do seem to go by quicker.

  8. vanderleun Says:

    “Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and the innocent,
    And indifferent in a week
    To a beautiful physique,

    Worships language and forgives
    Everyone by whom it lives;
    Pardons cowardice, conceit,
    Lays its honours at their feet.

    Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views,
    And will pardon Paul Claudel,
    Pardons him for writing well.”

  9. Frederick Says:

    I think it’s simply a case of being busier as one gets older, and having relatively fewer new experiences as opposed to the same thing over and over again. As a physicist I would be surprised if there were any physical explanation for it. Our perceptions are simply not always corresponding to reality. Color, for example, is not a physical property of light, rather it is the way our nervous systems process light. I experience the passage of time very differently depending on my mood or level of activity, which I imagine is common.

  10. Ken Mitchell Says:

    ” It’s the idea that each unit of time—say, a year—represents a smaller and smaller fraction of your entire life as you get older, and seems to pass more quickly in part for that reason. ”

    You may have read it here, since I’ve been saying that for 10 years now. 🙂 You’re welcome, but I cannot have been the first person to say it.

    Here in my late 60’s, I’m astonished at how quickly each year goes by, compared to how slowly each week seems to pass.

  11. Tim Broberg Says:

    It seems to me that recent memories are more dense. Distant memories have faded away such that you have much fewer per year and 10 memories could cover 5 years whereas recent memories whoosh by. Kind of like you feel like you’re moving faster the closer you are to the road.

    On the other hand, when I was a kid, summer was such a vast expanse of time that it boggled my little mind to contemplate from the beginning of it that it must some day be over. Now I fret over how to get enough done in such a little space.

  12. Donkatsu Says:

    A number of years ago the economist, Paul Samuelson, produced a “fun” mathematical proof of your proposition, Neo: Samuelson, P. (1976) “Speeding up of time with age in recognition of life as fleeting,”

    The result you are looking for is:

    . . . we have that agent x is more dynamically consistent around time t than is agent y if and only if, for all s ∈ [w, t],
    δy ≥δx(τ(t,s))+δx′ (τ(t,s))τ(t,s)+ 1 δx′ (τ(t,s)) ρ(s)
    ⇔δy −δx(τ(t,s))≥δx′(τ(t,s))τ(t,s)+ 1 δx′(τ(t,s)). ρ(s)

  13. Griffin Says:

    As someone in his late forties I have started to notice this phenomenon the last few years but I also wonder if we misremember how we perceived time in our youth. For me anyway summers flew by when I was a kid. And four years of college seemed to go by in a blink, not the other way around.

    What has really started to blow my mind is how many years ago certain events happened. Sometimes I can’t wrap my mind around it. Strange.

  14. physicsguy Says:

    Time is really an odd duck within the 4 dimensions of spacetime. Instead of being measured by rulers, it’s measured by clocks. What’s fascinating to me is that clocks seems to also need “motion” to measure “time” . Whether it’s hands moving, or the frequency of an atomic emission…definitely is mysterious though given equal footing with x, y, and z. Even worse is trying to understand our movement within time as unidirectional when there is no reason for that to happen.

    Then add in the QM notion that the universe may actually need “consciousness” in order to be realized. So maybe our conscientiousness does change the character of time.

    “Time” for some college football before I get too much of a headache

  15. Ruth H Says:

    My youngest sister made that observation when she first had children. We called it Judy’s theory of relativity. Each year is a smaller portion of your life.

    When you are four, the last year is one fourth of your life, when you are 81 as I am, the last year was 1/80th of my life. Relativity.

  16. AMartel Says:

    When you’re young, you are anxious about how long every thing is going to take (finishing school, starting work, succeeding – however that is defined personally) so time seems to drag by. As you get older, you’re anxiety changes to not having enough time so (of course) time seems to speed up, fly by faster.

  17. AesopFan Says:

    All very astute observations (Carl: first time I’ve seen the toilet roll analogy!), but I doubt if anyone will ever understand time until after we attend our first post-mortal physics seminar.

    Frederick Says:
    January 8th, 2018 at 3:11 pm
    I think it’s simply a case of being busier as one gets older, and having relatively fewer new experiences as opposed to the same thing over and over again. … I experience the passage of time very differently depending on my mood or level of activity, which I imagine is common.
    * * *
    Yes to the first sentence (I think I’ve seen that in books on brain function), and this to the last:


    Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
    by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  18. Frog Says:

    Beware of self-labeled “neuroscientists”.
    None are neurological physicians or neurophysiologists. The “neuroscientists” do not know how things really work upstairs. They’re mostly psychologists, creating a new “neuroscience” sanctuary for themselves.

    Eagleman’s website says, “I am a neuroscientist with deep interests in sensory substitution, time perception, vision, synesthesia, social neuroscience, and the intersection of neuroscience with the legal system.”

    Much of that is blather (“Social neuroscience”; “Deep”, not “Shallow”), as his comments on the passage of time demonstrate. There is no data there, just an opinion. An opinion as valid as Neo’s, and surely no better. Lo! Neo is a de facto “neuroscientist”!

    His “deep interest” in vision is meaningless when viewed from the standpoint of the eye’s optics, retina, optic nerve and tract radiation all the way back to the visual cortex of the brain, with great experts all along that route.

    Anyone with an expressed interest in an “intersection” of neuroscience [sic] with the legal system is trolling to be a well-paid expert witness, for sale to the highest offer.

    I know there are some here who will once again call me a curmudgeon. But the accelerating passage of time requires me to call a spade a spade, and quickly! Calling oneself a scientist does not a scientist make.

  19. Yancey Ward Says:

    Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day

    By Delmore Schwartz

    Calmly we walk through this April’s day,
    Metropolitan poetry here and there,
    In the park sit pauper and rentier,
    The screaming children, the motor-car
    Fugitive about us, running away,
    Between the worker and the millionaire
    Number provides all distances,
    It is Nineteen Thirty-Seven now,
    Many great dears are taken away,
    What will become of you and me
    (This is the school in which we learn …)
    Besides the photo and the memory?
    (… that time is the fire in which we burn.)

    (This is the school in which we learn …)
    What is the self amid this blaze?
    What am I now that I was then
    Which I shall suffer and act again,
    The theodicy I wrote in my high school days
    Restored all life from infancy,
    The children shouting are bright as they run
    (This is the school in which they learn …)
    Ravished entirely in their passing play!
    (… that time is the fire in which they burn.)

    Avid its rush, that reeling blaze!
    Where is my father and Eleanor?
    Not where are they now, dead seven years,
    But what they were then?
    No more? No more?
    From Nineteen-Fourteen to the present day,
    Bert Spira and Rhoda consume, consume
    Not where they are now (where are they now?)
    But what they were then, both beautiful;

    Each minute bursts in the burning room,
    The great globe reels in the solar fire,
    Spinning the trivial and unique away.
    (How all things flash! How all things flare!)
    What am I now that I was then?
    May memory restore again and again
    The smallest color of the smallest day:
    Time is the school in which we learn,
    Time is the fire in which we burn.

  20. T Says:

    I have thought about this for over the past 30 years, so my $0.02:

    I offer that there is no reason that any of the above explanations are fully correct, nor fully incorrect. They could well be an amalgam which defines time.

    I think, however, that what all of the responses miss is the perceptual nature of time itself. I think physicsguy is closest to this idea (“. . . the universe may actually need “consciousness” in order to be realized. So maybe our conscientiousness does change the character of time.” @ 5:01 pm above)

    For example the average roller coaster ride takes about 90 seconds, with about half of that being pulled up the first hill. Yet such rides seem relatively short lived. Now, by contrast, let’s say I poke you in the eye with a stick for 90 seconds. Clinically 90 seconds is 90 seconds, but perceptually an unpleasant 90 seconds is nigh on an eternity. Neither of these examples relies on how long one has lived, and yet, like the examples above they are all still inherently perceptual rather than absolute activities.

    Yes time may exist autonomously outside of the human experience yet I suspect its only because we perceive time that a past or a potential future can have any meaning at all. It seems that we come full circle; if a tree falls in a forest . . . .

  21. Julia Says:

    When I was in college and for several years after (I’d say about 10), I would move every year. It was in the same metro area, but mainly switching apartments. Each year had a stop and end spot in my memory. When I bought my house (which I’ve been in for almost 20 years), I noticed a change after about 2 years.

    The years were no longer discrete periods of time, but instead blended in to each.

    It was the same with relationships. They were shorter in my youth, and coupled with the housing changes, 1993 was quite separate in my mind from 1996. Now, 2006 and 2017 are just numbers with no real distinction.

    While I do try to experience new things, nothing stands out as significant life changing events. I no longer notice the passing of time. It’s a variation of no new experiences, but for me, a little more extreme.

  22. Gary D. G. Says:

    Some I know toast the sunset every day
    to speed the sun well on it’s way
    a small sip of wine before surrendering to Morpheus
    with some niggling hope to see the morrow’s light
    Then there are those such as I
    who toast each morning’s first light
    with a cup of coffee
    to look forward to each new adventure,
    each new titillation of the senses.
    Time means nothing
    it’s only a blank page of twenty four hours
    upon which you write your life.
    I toast each sunrise with fond remembrance
    of old friends who are no longer able to do so.

  23. OldTexan Says:

    I had to think about this a bit, in my seventh decade time passes easily, I don’t have many things I have to do each day but they fill up, they are full, I look forward to each new one.

    My youngest grand daughter is 3 months old and when I am holding her I realize that when she is 83 years old it will be 2100 and I wonder what can of world will she live in. That sort of stuff fascinates me. My dad was born in the early 1900’s, rode a horse to school and did not ride in a car until he was 14 years old and when he was in his 60’s traveled to Europe on a jet plane so that generation saw their world change. In his 80’s he took some college summer school classes on using computers.

    Just random thoughts about time, how fast our years go by and what will be in store for our youngsters, I hope and pray it will be good things.

  24. Ymar Sakar Says:

    What people don’t want to consider or look into is the data on atomic clocks for the change in the speed of light.

    That rabbit hole, humans are afraid of, on parallel and equal with the fear of quantum mechanics since it smacks too much of Power through the Will.

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