Our bodies are sophisticated watches that seem to get faster with age. The psychologist William James at the turn of the 20th century observed that years seem to pass more rapidly as we grow older. In 1937 French biophysicist Lecomte du Nouy associated this phenomenon of a racing time with the slowing in cellular activity in ageing bodies. He connected time with our physiological processes.
To this day, although there is much evidence supporting this theory, the relationship between our physiological processes and our estimate of time remains contested.
For example, in 1958, Sanford Goldstone, William Boardman and William Lhamon, with Baylor University Houston, Texas, asked institutional older adults to count 30 seconds at a rate of one count per second. Older adults tended to report a shorter time interval than younger people. But the evidence goes back and forth.
In 2005 Marc Wittman and Sandra Lehnhoff, together with the Ludwig-Maximilian University Munich, supported the widespread belief that the passage of time speeds up with age. They point out that such incremental changes are subtle. The authors also concede that there remain other factors that can speed up time.
In an experiment in 1961 Michael Wallach and Leonard Green with MIT found that both what we are doing at the time and how much time we think we have can make time speed up. This sense of urgency is what influences our impression of accelerating time.
Those older adults who are dying and fearing death feel more pressured by the passage of time. Similarly, those who are busy also see time passing by faster.
In contrast, Steve Baum, with Sunnybrook Medical Centre, Toronto and his colleagues, report that time also moved slower for many institutionalised elders. People in institutions who engage in few daily activities see time as going by more slowly. Older adults report both extremes: time getting faster while others report time going slower.
Jacob Tuckman uncovered this duality in 1965 when he reported that although there is a slight increase in the rhythm of time among older adults, he reported that they were both the group that saw time pass quickly as well as the group that saw time most slowly. Older adults were just more aware of time and reacted to the perception of time in “both directions”.
And we know that time is flexible and malleable in our mind. The elaboration came when Richard Block reported that time intervals with many events are experienced as longer than intervals filled with fewer events.
It could be that time does not get faster with age but it seems that it does because we have an urgency to do things before we die
In uneventful situations, such as in a typical nursing home when a period of time is not filled with distracting events, time seems to pass slower. Most importantly, we attach emotional meaning to events.
In 2007 Sylvie Droit-Volet and Warren Meck reported how our sense of time is moderated by how we feel – so that time seems short when we are having fun and extends when we are bored. It could be that time does not get faster with age but it seems that it does because we have an urgency to do things before we die. We speed up time for us to coherently make sense of our urgency. We tend to try and accomplish too many things despite perhaps not having the energy to accomplish them. And it is not our awareness that slows down or speeds up but our memory of it.
Similar to the experience of fear, where time seems to slow down, what speeds up is our memory not our attention. David Eagleman, with Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, designed a clever experiment which conclusively showed that fear, for example, does not actually increase how fast we are at noticing events, and therefore slowing time. He found that, instead, what happens is that we gain improved memory that packs that time unit with many details and events.
We are learning that time is a complex psychological phenomenon. It is not an illusion, but a reality that exists at the centre of our consciousness. With time there are variances in the context (busy vs bored), differences in individual experiences (older vs younger) and also complexity of time (neurological vs external measures).
Understanding that we have memories that are snapshots (some of which remain in our subconscious) rather than a movie, elevates time to the master conductor of our memories. Time orchestrates our memories. But this still does not explain why older adults are more prone to speeding up time.
Again, Steve Baum and his colleagues report that among older adults faster time perceptions were associated with being healthier – less clinical depression, enhanced sense of purpose and control, and ‘younger’ perceived age – while the opposite perception held true for older adults who were more frail and saw themselves as ‘older’ where time was going slower.
We dictate time speed by our urgency and our age. In return, our time metronome selects memories to make our story of our life coherent – the counter-intuitive prediction being that the faster you think that time is going, the longer you are likely to live.
How we see time is an indication of our life story. We might be accessing cues from both our body and the environment that tells us when that final curtain is likely to be.
Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.