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Why does time seem to pass faster as we get older?

As we age, time seems to pass more quickly, and we do not know why. A common explanation for this is that our brains process less information as we grow older, which makes time seem to speed up. 

While science has not been able to prove this or any other explanation to be true, scientists have put forward a theory that can offer some insights.

Organized lives

We may feel this way because the more days we live, the more routinely we do things, and our lives revolve around a particular structure. This is the view of Cindy Lustig, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan.

“When we are older, we tend to have lives that are more structured around routines, and fewer of the big landmark events that we use to demarcate different epochs of the ‘time of our lives,'” said Lustig.

Fewer new experiences

According to Lustig, our lives and time may also appear to pass us by faster as we grow older because there are more experiences to reflect on as we become adults than when we were children.

“For a five-year-old, one year is 20 percent of their life packed with experiences as they discover the world around them. However, the same amount of time is only two percent of a 50-year-old’s life that likely has fewer new experiences.”

Our brain’s ability to process similar days and weeks together gives us a feeling that everything is all part of a single whole.

Considering the human brain is designed to process time using memorable events, it becomes a challenge as we grow older because these events become fewer and less frequent.

This is why it is easier for most people to recall something they have done only once, as opposed to things that have become routine.

Aging brain

Another theory that has attempted to explain why time passes fast was proposed by Adrian Bejan, a researcher at Duke University. In his study published in 2019, Bejan identified the aging brain as the reason we have an altered perception of time.

He believes we were able to take in new information faster when we were young, allowing the brain to process more within the same period. This makes the days appear longer than they might later on.

Mental images

“The reason is that the measurable ‘clock time’ is not the same as the time perceived by the human mind. The ‘mind time’ is a sequence of images, i.e., reflections of nature that are fed by stimuli from sensory organs,” Bejan explained in his study.

The difference between the past and the present is due to the change in mental view, not necessarily because “somebody’s clock rings.” 

The mental view changes as our brain ages. Key neurological features degrade, forcing us to acquire and process new information more slowly.

“The rate at which changes in mental images are perceived decreases with age because of several physical features that change with age: saccades frequency, body size, pathways degradation, etc.,” he added.

Opposing views

While Bejan’s findings appear logical and convincing, Lustig believes it does not fully and correctly explain the situation.

“He makes some argument about the length of the optic nerve related to head size, and I will let you judge whether an 80-year-old has a substantially larger head than a 25-year-old,” she said.

While theories abound, the mystery of time perception continues to captivate us. Until we can scientifically establish what drives it, it is safe to say that it passes at the same rate as always.

Bejan’s study was published in the journal European Review.

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