Why Time Seems to Pass at Different Speeds (Part 2)
Perception explains why time seems to speed up with aging.
Posted July 7, 2011
In my last blog post, I looked into the question of why time appears to speed up as we get older, and examined two different theories to explain this: the ‘biological' and ‘proportional' theories. However, in my view, the speeding up of time we experience is mainly related to our perception of the world around us and of our experiences, and how this perception changes as we grow older.
The speed of time seems to be largely determined by how much information our minds absorb and process - the more information there is, the slower time goes.
This connection was verified by the psychologist Robert Ornstein in the 1960s. In a series of experiments, Ornstein played tapes to volunteers with various kinds of sound information on them, such as simple clicking sounds and household noises. At the end he asked them to estimate how long they had listened to the tape for, and found that when there was more information on the tape (e.g. when there were double the number of clicking noises), the volunteers estimated the time period to be longer. He found that this applied to the complexity of the information too. When they were asked to examine different drawings and paintings, the participants with the most complex images estimated the time period to be longest.
And if more information slows down time, perhaps part of the reason why time goes so slowly for children is because of the massive amount of ‘perceptual information' that they take in from the world around them. Young children appear to live in a completely different world to adults - a much more intense, more real and more fascinating and beautiful one. This is one of the reasons why we often recall childhood as a time of bliss - because the world was a much more exciting and beautiful place to us then, and all our experiences were so intense. Children's heightened perception means that they're constantly taking in all kinds of details which pass us adults by - tiny cracks in windows, tiny insects crawling across the floor, patterns of sunlight on the carpet etc. And even the larger scale things which we can see as well seem to be more real to them, to be brighter, with more presence and is-ness. All of this information stretches out time for children.
However, as we get older, we lose this intensity of perception, and the world becomes a dreary and familiar place - so dreary and familiar that we stop paying attention to it. After all, why should you pay attention to the buildings or streets you pass on the way to work? You've seen these things thousands of times before, and they're not beautiful or fascinating, they're just... ordinary. As Wordsworth puts it in his famous poem ‘Intimations of Immortality', the childhood vision which enabled to all things "apparelled in celestial light," begins to "fade into the light of common day." And this is why time speeds up for us. As we become adults, we begin to ‘switch off' to the wonder and is-ness of the world, gradually stop paying conscious attention to our surroundings and experience. As a result we take in less information, which means that time passes more quickly. Time is less ‘stretched' with information.
Old and New Experience
And once we become adults, there is a process of progressive ‘familiarisation' which continues throughout our lives. The longer we're alive, the more familiar the world becomes, so that the amount of perceptual information we absorb decreases with every year, and time seems to pass faster every year.
There are two basic reasons why this happens. On the one hand, as we grow older there is progressively less newness in our lives. From one year to the next, we gradually use up the store of potential new experiences available to us. And secondly, as we get older all the experiences we've already had become more familiar to us. Not only do we have fewer new experiences, but the experiences which are already familiar to us become progressively less real. In William James' words, "each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine." As well as experiencing lots of new things, a woman at the age of 20 is still quite ‘fresh' to the phenomenal world around her - but over the next 20 years, she'll look at the same street scenes and the same sky and the same trees thousands of times, so that more and more of their realness will fade away.
Incidentally, this link between time and information can explain other aspects of time too. One of the ‘laws' of psychological time which I set out in my book Making Time is that "time seems to slow down when we're exposed to new environments and experiences." This is because the unfamiliarity of new experiences allows us to take in much more information. Another of the laws is that "time goes quickly in states of absorption." This is because in states of absorption our attention narrows to one small focus and we block out information from our surroundings. At the same time there is very little ‘cognitive information' in our minds, since the concentration has quietened the normal ‘thought chatter' of the mind. On the other hand, time goes slowly in states of boredom and discomfort because in these situations our attention isn't occupied and a massive amount of thought-chatter flows through our minds, bringing a massive amount of cognitive information.
Time doesn't necessarily have to speed up as we get older though. To a certain extent, it depends on how we live our lives, and how we relate to our experience. I'll look at some ideas relating to this in a future blog 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