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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 -
- 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?