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30th Mar 2023

The reason why it feels like time goes faster as you age


By Callum Boyle.

Summer holidays felt like they went on forever, but now the weekend goes by in the blink of an eye – here’s why.

We’ve all wondered it at some point: why does it feel like time goes faster as you get older and why did the days feel so much longer when you were a kid – it’s part of the human experience.

Whether it was watching the clock tick down at school, playing out till dusk, or going on holiday, time felt like it was moving much slower – and that’s because it kind of was. Well, at least according to your brain, anyway.

Time is proportionate to memory.

So, why does the time go so fast as you age? Put in the simplest terms, one of the most prevalent explanations is that our perception of time is inherently linked to how much time we have already lived – ie the older you get the more memories and experiences you have to draw on.

Using this rationale, to a five-year-old child, a single year feels incredibly long as it represents just 20 percent of their entire life thus far.

They have nothing else to compare it to other than the relatively short amount of time they’ve already been on Earth for.

Think about it: you rarely hear a kid talking about another childhood memory as having happened ‘ages ago’, do you? Moreover, their recollection as a proportion of their total memory and life lived isn’t even complete as you have to discount infancy.

Most people can’t remember anything before the ages of two or three, so imagine how infinitesimal those early memories are for a person in their old age whose brain is filled with decades of memories, experience, and time lived.

How does the brain change how we perceive time?

So, what neurological phenomena lead to this proportional perception of time passing as we live more life? Well, as noted in a study published in the European Review, Professor Adrian Bejan suggests that we perceive “actual time” as between the arrival of newly-created neural images. Essentially, it’s the new stuff we remember most.

Speaking in an NBC News piece, neurologist and neuroscientist Santosh Kesari says: “We gauge time by memorable events and fewer new things occur as we age to remember, making it seem like childhood lasted longer”.

As she highlights, people are less likely to experience entirely new things and sensations as they get older; the logic holds up too, as I’m sure you can attest that you tend to remember something that you’ve done just once and never before more vividly than something you’ve done a hundred times over.

Even further still, this is why you hear of people leaving work and driving home but barely remembering the journey: it’s so routine to your brain that you can essentially run on auto-pilot and switch off until whatever task you’re doing is completed.

Moreover, in regards to days feeling much longer when you were younger, children’s cognition and neural processing are less developed than in adults, meaning new stimuli take longer to register and become familiar and there is more of a disconnect between an internal clock and the genuine passage of time.

Interestingly, studies have also shown that when children are asked to estimate unaided the passing of a single minute while idle, they tend to overestimate.

In research conducted by Clifford N. Lazarus, while kids often perceive what they feel like as a minute going by in just 4o seconds, adults tended to clock in around 70 seconds, which goes to show there are definitely more theories that could be at play here.

Nevertheless, what research has been done proves that time really does fly, and judging by current findings, the best way to combat it is by going out and doing new things: Carpe diem and all that lark.