By Katherine Sharma
I recently read a fiction work that played with time and memory. With the turn of a page, the reader was taken from long, intense passages of youthful experience to brief words of graying regret, and I recognized with dismay a similar warping in my own time perception. Simply put, as we grow older, time seems to speed up. The memories of youth may remain rich and crowded, but recent events pass in a blink. Why? Sure, one day to an 11-year-old is about 1/4,000 of his or her life but is just 1/20,000 of a lifespan for a 55-year-old, so any random day literally counts for less with age. But that’s just mathematics and doesn’t explain why I perceive time accelerating moment by moment.
A common theory is that children and young adults are actively engaged in learning and adapting to new stimuli, while older people draw on experience, routine and mental habit, so older brains form fewer rich memories and rely on pre-mapped reactions that basically treat familiar stimuli as invisible. The increase in invisible, unremembered moments will make the subjective perception of time pass at a faster rate as we grow older. No matter your age, studies show there are ways to put the brakes on flying time.
We perceive time as moving more slowly when we experience certain strong emotions, such as fear or awe. Time also seems to slow down when we are engaged in a cognitively demanding task or experiencing multiple changes in a short interval or faced with novel stimuli. So there are solutions to my illusion of speeding time if I want to take a little effort.
A recent New York Times opinion piece on time and aging by psychiatrist Richard Friedman put it aptly: “It’s simple: if you want time to slow down, become a student again. Learn something that requires sustained effort; do something novel. Put down the thriller when you’re sitting on the beach and break out a book on evolutionary theory or Spanish for beginners or a how-to book on something you’ve always wanted to do. Take a new route to work; vacation at an unknown spot. And take your sweet time about it.” For more, see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/opinion/sunday/fast-time-and-the-aging-mind.html?_r=0