Out of the Darkness

The science of post-traumatic growth.

Why Does Time Seem to Pass at Different Speeds?

Does time really speed up as we get older?

I'm six years old, in the car with my parents and brother, travelling back from our annual two week holiday in Conwy, North Wales. It's dark and the journey seems to take forever. I lie in the back seat, watching the orange streetlights and the houses pass by, and wonder if we're ever going to get home.

"Are we nearly there yet?" I ask my father.
"Don't be silly," he says. "We only set off half an hour ago."

My mum plays a few games with us to make the time pass faster. We listen to the radio for a while. Then I fall asleep. When I wake up it seems like I've been in the car for an eternity and I can't believe we're still not home.

The journey from Conwy to Manchester took two hours when I was a child and still takes roughly two hours now (although slightly less due to improvements in roads). I made the journey again a few years ago and couldn't believe how short it seemed now, from my adult perspective. Those two hours - which seemed like an eternity when I was 6 - were nothing. My girlfriend was driving, and we chatted, listened to tapes, watched the Welsh countryside give way to the urban sprawl of north-west England, and we were back in Manchester almost before we knew it. It was a little frightening - what had happened to all the time that two hours contained when I was six years old?

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This story appears to fit with most people's experience. Most of us feel that time moved very slowly when we were children and is gradually speeding up as we grow older. We've all remarked on it: how Christmas seems to come round quicker every year; how you're just getting used to writing the date of the new year on your cheques and you realise that it's almost over; how your children are about to finish school when it doesn't seem long since you were changing their nappies...

Questionnaires by psychologists have shown that almost everyone - including college students - feels that time is passing faster now compared to when they were half or a quarter as old as now. And perhaps most strikingly, a number of experiments have shown that, when older people are asked to guess how long intervals of time are, or to ‘reproduce' the length of periods of time, they guess a shorter amount than younger people.

We usually become conscious of this speeding up around our late twenties, when most of us have ‘settled down.' We have steady jobs and marriages and homes and our lives become ordered into routines - the daily routine of working, coming home, having dinner and watching TV; the weekly routine of (for example) going to the gym on Monday night, going to the cinema on Wednesday night, going for a drink with friends on Friday night etc.; and the yearly routine of birthdays, bank holidays and two weeks' holiday in the summer. After a few years we start to realise that the time it takes us to run through these routines seems to be decreasing, as if we're on a turntable which is picking up speed with every rotation.

This speeding up is probably responsible for the phenomenon which psychologists call ‘forward telescoping': our tendency to think that past events have happened more recently than they actually have. Marriages, deaths, the birth of children - when we look back at these and other significant events, we're often surprised that they happened so long ago, shocked to find that it's already four years since a friend died when we thought it was only a couple of years, or that a niece or nephew is already ten years old when it only seems like three or four years since they were born.

The Proportional and Biological Theories

So why do we experience this speeding up of time?
One popular answer is the ‘proportional' theory, which suggests that the important factor is that, as you get older, each time period constitutes a smaller fraction of your life as a whole. This theory seems to have been first put forward in 1877 by Paul Janet, who suggested the law that, as William James describes it, "the apparent length of an interval at a given epoch of a man's life is proportional to the total length of the life itself. A child of 10 feels a year as 1/10 of his whole life - a man of 50 as 1/50, the whole life meanwhile apparently preserving a constant length."

At the age of one month, a week is a quarter of your whole life, so it's inevitable that it seems to last forever. At the age of 14, one year constitutes around 7% of your life, so that seems to be a large amount of time too. But at the age of 30 a week is only a tiny percentage of your life, and at 50 a year is only 2% of your life, and so your subjective sense is that these are insignificant periods of time which pass very quickly.

 

There is some sense to this theory - it does offer an explanation for why the speed of time seems to increase so gradually and evenly, with almost mathematical consistency. One problem with it, however, is that it tries to explain present time purely in terms of past time. The assumption behind it is that we continually experience our lives as a whole, and perceive each day, week, month or year becoming more insignificant in relation to the whole. But we don't live our lives like this. We live in terms of much smaller periods of time, from hour to hour and day to day, dealing with each time period on its own merits, independently of all that has gone before.

There are also biological theories. One of these is that the speeding up of time is linked to how our metabolism gradually slows down as we grow older. Because children's hearts beat faster than ours, because they breathe more quickly and their blood flows more quickly etc., their body clocks ‘cover' more time within the space of 24 hours than ours do as adults. Children live through more time simply because they're moving through time faster. Think of a clock which is set to run 25% faster than normal time - after 12 hours of normal time it has covered 15 hours, after 24 hours of normal time it has covered 30, which means that, from that clock's point of view, a day has contained more time than usual. On the other hand old people are like clocks which run slower than normal, so that they lag behind, and cover less than 24 hours' time against a normal clock.

Also from a biological perspective, there is the ‘body temperature' theory. In the 1930s the psychologist Hudson Hoagland conducted a series of experiments which showed that body temperature causes different perceptions of time. Once, when his wife was ill with the flu and he was looking after her, he noticed that she complained that he'd been away for a long time even if he was only away for a few moments. With admirable scientific detachment, Hoagland tested her perception of time at different temperatures, and found that the higher her temperature, the more time seemed to slow down for her, and the longer she experienced each time period. Hoagland followed this up with several semi-sadistic experiments with students, which involved them enduring temperatures of up to 65C, and wearing heated helmets. These showed that raising a person's body temperature can slow down their sense of time passing by up to 20%. And the important point here may be that children have a higher body temperature than adults, which may mean that time is ‘expanded' to them. And in a similar way, our body temperature becomes gradually lower

However,in my view the best way of explaining this speeding up of time is through what I call 'the perceptual theory' - and which (since this blog has already gone on too long) I'll describe in my next post.

Steve Taylor is the author of several books on self-development and psychology, including Waking From Sleep, described by Eckhart Tolle as 'an important contribution to the global shift in consciousness.' His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com.

Steve Taylor Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University and a researcher in transpersonal psychology at Liverpool John Moores University.

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