Surprising New Longevity Research
This Week in Elder News: 16 February 2008

Some Theories on "Elder Time"

Part of Mel’s lament about aging that we addressed earlier this week is how fast time flies. Her original post is even titled, “Time Marches On” followed by a few expletives, and as she noted in a comment here:

“…time seems to be moving rather quickly - and I would rather it not be so!”

Another commenter, Martin, gave this explanation for the apparent increase in the speed of time as we get older:

“Time is only a construct. Pay attention to it and it speeds up. Ignore it and it disappears - for awhile. And when again you pay attention to it, as you will, you will find that a whopping big chunk of it has zipped on by while you weren't looking.”

That’s one explanation, although it has never worked that way for me. Another came to my attention in a fortune cookie I kept taped to my desk for years, although it doesn’t address the speed specifically:

“Time is nature’s way of making sure everything doesn’t happen all at once.”

The phenomenon of the apparent increase, as we get older, in the speed at which time passes is ancient. We all know it doesn’t really speed up (well, I could write a rather long and fanciful treatise opposing that point of view – maybe another day), but almost everyone experiences it as such to some degree, sometimes.

A long time ago, during the first year of this blog, I did a little research into possible explanations and came up with these, both reasonable and crackpot to which I gave names:

  1. Proportional Time: The most common reason advanced is that time is perceived as a proportion of time lived. That is, to a five-year-old, a year is 20 percent of his entire existence. To a 60 year-year-old, one year is it only 1.67 percent of his life.
  2. Complex Time: Another well-worn theory is that as we get older, life gets busier and with more things to do, there is less downtime so life speeds by. This is a weaker argument as there are plenty of not-so-busy people who perceive time as moving faster than in youth.
  3. Stupid Time: It’s forgetfulness according to this theory. Memory weakens as the years pass and because we can’t remember what we did yesterday, let alone last week or last month, time flies. Perhaps my mind has flown, but the logic of this one escapes me.
  4. Routine Time: This argument postulates that as we age, our time is taken up with increasing numbers of practiced pleasures and predictable tasks that provide little intellectual stimulation. If, instead, we spent our time in new pursuits, this argument suggests, time would slow down. This almost works because it blends nicely with my theory on this phenomenon -

  5. Tense Time: Time is perceived at different rates of speed depending on whether your mindset is primarily in the past, present or future tense.

Children generally are future tense types. They can’t wait to be big enough to ride a bicycle or stay up later or go to the movies alone. Their anticipation of holidays, birthdays and summer vacations in addition to the constantly moving target of age-related privileges guarantees that each wait will feel like eternity.

Young adults live mainly in the future tense too, looking forward anxiously to that promotion, finding the perfect wife or husband, affording a fancier car or bigger house. Even raising kids is on future time – vying for the best schools and saving for the right college. Time moves more slowly during the first half of life because we are anticipating the next thing we want rather than enjoying what is here and now.

When I originally postulated my Tense Time theory in 2004, I suggested that elders tend to live in the past tense which could make time appear to move faster because there is less anticipation involved in living than in younger years.

But I’ve learned a lot about elders in these subsequent four years and I would like to be clear that I don’t think elders live only or entirely in the past. Personally, I have more than enough to anticipate.

However, the theory may still hold up because we have so many years of memories and experience to apply to current living and many of us are involved – consciously or otherwise - in Jung’s seven tasks of aging, two of which involve life review and determining the meaning of one’s life.

Or, this could just be another crackpot theory of my own.

In response to my long-ago post on the time speed phenomenon, Eric Antonow who blogs these days at Aux Input, offered a sixth possible explanation he called Cache Time, which owes something to the workings of computers:

“For the sake of intellectual efficiency, our minds cache vast amounts of information for quick, later reference. Just as Web browsers store images of frequently and recently visited sites, the human brain stores parts of the world that we interact with everyday such as the shape of an eggplant, the golden retriever that belongs to our neighbor, our neighbors themselves.

“As a result, much of what we think of as experience is actually the act of accessing the cached data rather than processing the real-life visual or auditory or other experience.

“As there are fewer experiences, over time, involving new data and an increased number using cached data, the world seems to move faster because we are processing old data for the second, fiftieth, hundredth time (so it really is faster).”

There is more of Eric’s theory here.

One more item about how fast time passes: a few months ago, I lamented to Millie Garfield of My Mom's Blog that it feels like I've just filled up my seven-day vitamin dispenser when it's empty again. Millie laughed and suggested I buy another so I could fill up two containers at a time. That worked for awhile, but nowadays I'm shocked at how fast two weeks go by instead of one.

What do you think? Are there any new theories out there – crackpot or otherwise?


Here's my take on it, according to something I read in the Economist about 3 months ago; as children, time passes slowly because we are experiencing 'new' things. Our brains have to imprint that information into memory and it takes time. As we age, we keep experiencing more of the same kinds of things and the brain simply drags them up, from those memories. I'm condensing the article here, but it's really just a case of 'been there...done that' that causes time to fly.

See what happens when I don't read carefully? I simply condensed the explanation of Eric Antonow...Sorry!

My daughter and her family lived far away from me and I saw them only two or three times a year.

She has two boys and the younger one,Andrew, always cried when he saw me packing to leave. From the time he was 3 and his brother was 7 he would say, "Don't go now, Nanny, just wait till Saturday."

Now it could be Friday when he was saying this, so it made us wonder what Saturday meant to him. No matter what day I was leaving he would beg me to stay until Saturday.

Then it dawned on me. His Dad worked all week and his brother was in school, so everything the family was going to do had to be on Saturday. If they were going to a picnic it was "Wait till Saturday" or to the movies "We're going on Saturday." or "Your birthday party is Saturday."

So, he had to wait for what was to him an eternity for Saturday to come and all these good things could happen.

When he was asking me to wait till Saturday it meant that I would be staying much longer because it was always a very long time until Saturday came for a 3 year old.

Andrew didn't realize that he was a small example of Einstein's Theory of Relativity....

I was wondering if you would come back to this issue as it was such a large part of Mel's post and one of the two features that struck me most strongly. Mom and I have frequently commented on how fast time seems to fly by and how much faster it seems to accelerate. We wake up and realize that it is already Friday and wonder where the week has gone or suddenly realize that we have to go and pay the rent AGAIN so where has the month gone. I haven't found a way around the phenomenon, so I guess I just have to live with it. At least I don't feel like the 'lone ranger.'

The item I noticed was that she perceived the increased speed of time's passage at about the same time in life that I did--in my early forties. I never had children so that wasn't my lament. But I did get the feeling that my best days were behind me and that I would spend the rest of my life spinning my wheels going no where fast. Looking in the mirror I saw someone I didn't recognize. Clothes that fit the day before seemed to be too tight in strategic places though my weight hadn't changed.

Something happened however between then and now. The signs of aging did not go away. They just didn't matter so much any more. I never did like using make-up much but did because my jobs seemed to demand it--to demand a more youthful look. Now I don't use it at all. I dress for comfort not because I either want to look my age or disguise my age.

Time still speeds by at an increasing rate. I complain every now and then but go on with what I am doing. I am getting older and my appearance reflects that. But it doesn't bother me. I hope Mel gets to that place where she can be comfortable in the skin she has and not long for the one she has shed.

My crackpot theory of why time seems to fly for elders is because we know we are rapidly reaching the end of life and time is more precious to us. Like all good things, time passes too quickly.
Each Saturday morning as I take my BP tablet I invariably say, "Wasn't it just yesterday that it was the weekend?"

Actually, the beauty of very young children is that they live in the absolute present - in the right now, this very moment. Past and future have absolutely no meaning to them. They take forever looking at the smallest bug on the sidewalk and when we ask them how their day was they truly cannot remember. They lose it soon because adults are forever forcing them into their time zone and ignoring their developmental rhythm. The more I am with young children and observe them the more I yearn to be like that. Right in the here and now - present moment even at age 58!

There are some possible reasons why it might seem to be passing more quickly and some were mentioned already. As a child, it's all about getting to the next stage where this power or that one is added to their life. As an elder, it's going toward a time where less power is experienced and eventually the end. So it takes forever to get to good things but bad come all too soon.

Enough! This is the third time you have misrepresented Mel. In this post you make it sound like she has the mouth of a sailor when actually she simply used the cartoon representation of expletives. I certainly hope your readers have gone to her blog to read all of her entries and not just the disjointed quotes you have chosen. When we lost her stepfather this year after a lengthy illness, she was there for me every step of the way with a maturity and compassion many could learn from. When her great aunt died unexpectedly this year she is the one that stepped up flew back east and looked after her uncle. Mel worked in a retirement community, which by the way she drove over an hour to get to. There were some she continued to visit even after she left to be a new mom. She homeschools her children because it is what is best for her son that has been diagnosed with Aspberger's syndrome. She has owned her own business, taught herself candle making, jewlery making, and photography. Are you going to tell me that you have never looked at family pictures and wondered where the time has gone, or your changing body and wonder when did you become your mother? Give me a break! Mel is not an ageist, she is a well rounded,compassionate, selfless young woman that loves life. Oh yes, she is also polite because she has chosen not to respond to some of the stabs at her character by people that don't even know her, why because she was taught to respect her elders!! However, I am one of you and I say enough already!

To return to the initial topic, my sense of personal time is built from a series of accumulated memories. The more memorable things that occur in a given period, the longer that time period feels. The periods of "same old, same old" dissolve into background noise despite how many physical years they represent. While the discovery of a new and interesting place, play, or person registers as a new memory event and stamps the time as significant. A trip to Spain might define a year, while years of commuting dissipate into a minute.

Interesting point, Chuck D. Although the significant events in the years since I wrote the original post about time passing quickly are many, when I looked up that first post to write this one, I was shocked, when I saw the date, that it was FOUR YEARS AGO. If someone had asked me, I'd have said, oh, maybe 18 months or so.

Maybe different explanations fit better with different people.

In the last year of her active life, my mom would say to me, "You know, time goes by so fast now that I could swear that I slowly crawl out of bed, turn around, and then crawl back into bed again for the night."

Agree with Tamarika - time seems to speed up because we are not truly living in the present moment, we are regretting the past or worrying about the future or thinking of the next thing we have to "do".

If you focus on being instead of doing, your days will be much more enjoyable and seem to last longer.

In my experience time certainly seems to have speeded up as I've got older. I think it probably has got something to do with how much your brain takes in (as in Stephen's comment) but have you noticed how the reverse is true if you trip over: you seem to take ages to reach the ground. Is this because your brain is processing as much info as possible as you try to save yourself?

Wonderful observations on the relative experiences of the passsage of time.
My perception of the distance from point A to point B within the time framework is directly correlated with my personal experience of time.
When I was 7, six months was 7% of my life experience. Today, six months represents .166% (i.e. less than 2/10) of my life. Six months was a significant interval when I was seven, now it's barely a heartbeat.
Obvious? Of course!
Worth repeating?
Not to the initiatae.

I've always thought it was because the world was so big and unfamiliar when we were little; there was so much to discover. Also we felt very powerless and overwhelmed by feelings and by all the things we couldn't do. The smallest things loomed large, and thought had to be slow because each little detail had to be explored, savored, and recorded in the brain, and integrated with other new data. Thought is time, don't you think?

At this age there's a lot about the world we're very familiar with and competent at. We've got it in the shorthand of familiar concepts and we have a lot more power over it, including over our own emotions in that we can name and understand them. Our senses are far less involved -- that I think is a biggie. There's an automatic quality about a lot of what we do and think because we're so practiced at living. Even though we do still make new discoveries and combine thoughts in new ways, it's peripheral to the vast organized body of habit and competence.

In other words, we're not paying the same degree of attention because we don't have to. But the price is that "time goes by" without our being fully engaged in it. Gears fully engaged brings time almost to a stop.

We are almost like hawks on thermals, riding high above the world and watching it turn and slip by instead of being down there immersed in it, turning with it.

Another good question is: what slows time down for you? Traveling to or living in a new place? Learning a new language? Loving a new person? Meditation? Serious writing slows time way down for me, because I've slowed my mind down to the almost biological pace of the world, the pace at which things are made.

These words might be pertinent: "Beginner's mind."

I have came day by anothe paying more attention to the go of time. there rly fly time when u do something what do u prefer and enjoy and in moment when u feel pain there is lot of waste of time the right fact is however is when there is time gone it wont turn back.

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