September already!?

Why does time go faster as we get older?

3rd September 2018

Question: why is this year going so quickly? Like, can we just take a minute here. It’s September, already? Are we sure?

Yep, this year is flying by. Though it might feel like only yesterday we were counting down to midnight 2017, we have now rocketed through more than three quarters of 2018; Christmas is just around the corner, folks (!).

Now, maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t it feel like this year has gone waaaaaay quicker than the year before it? And come to think of it, didn’t that year also seem to go way quicker than the one before? Didn’t the six week holidays feel like literal aeons when you were (not) at school, whereas that same exact period of time now goes by quicker than lager turns to piss?

One possible explanation could be the old “time flies when you’re having fun” paradigm, except that that isn’t based in any kind of truth whatsoever. It’s just something people say — and besides, life tends to just become duller and more monotonous post-18. At least, in my experience.

Is someone speeding the clocks up a little bit every year?

So, what’s the deal? Is someone speeding the clocks up a little bit every year? Is it some grand conspiracy orchestrated from the highest echelons of society aiming to steal from us our precious time? Was there a month that somebody got rid of while we weren’t paying attention? We need answers!

Fortunately, those nerds with long white coats and clipboards — I’m told they prefer to be addressed as scientists — have, as usual, got all the answers, and they’re actually pretty straightforward.

clock
Not sure why I included this extremely oppressive clock picture, to be honest

On the face of it, it would make sense that a year feels like the exact same length of time at any age. However, we experience and understand time relatively — our only frame of reference when comparing amounts of time is to our previous experiences — which means that the more time you’ve been alive, the faster time seems to go.

Basically, when you’re 10 and a year goes by, that year is a tenth of your entire existence — and that’s how it feels; like a lot. But, when you’re 20 and a year goes by, it’s only a twentieth of the total amount time you’ve been alive — so, relatively speaking, it feels like much less. This is what’s described as the ratio theory, originally posed by French psychology Pierre Janet in 1877 — not to be confused with the coward’s ratio theory, originally posed by an unknown Twitter user in 2017.

One of the ways we judge time is by how many events we remember over that period

So, there’s no escaping it, then. Time will just continue to feel like it’s accelerating at a rate that instils genuine existential dread for the remainder of our lives, until we are old and the season seems to change with every blink of the eye.

But, the good news is we might be able to stave this off, to some extent. Because the other thing about our perception of time — especially when we try to analyse it retrospectively — is that our brains tend to process new experiences into our memories, but less so with things we’ve already experienced. One of the ways we judge time is by how many events we remember over that period. So, typically, as we get older and have less new experiences, our brains stop processing and storing them in the same way, and we remember less, which makes us feel like it was less time.

So, as you get older, if you try to fill each day with new experiences, then you might be better off. Don’t worry though, because, either way, death’s icy embrace will come for us all in the end!

3rd September 2018