Why does time go by so fast?

They say time “flies” as you get older, but what does that really mean?

The speed of a clock doesn’t always match how we feel about the time that is passing. The same time can feel longer or shorter, depending on what you’re doing. If you’ve got 20 minutes to grab a coffee during a work break, those minutes tend to whizz by, but waiting 20 minutes for a bus can seem like a lifetime. 

Time of course does not literally speed up or slow down - it’s our perception of time that changes. 

In the fifth century BC, Antiphonus of Athens wrote that time is "not a reality, but a concept or a measure."  Time in terms of physics is defined by the measurement of the duration of events. Time is what a clock reads.

Psychologists say that by doing different things, you can change your perception of time.

A study from the University of Alabama published in the journal Psychological Science, investigated the concept of “time flies when you’re having fun”. They hypothesised that despite this idea being partially true, it only worked when someone is engaged with ‘approach motivation’ - or the desire to achieve a goal. 

One of the experiments involved showing participants pictures of positive images and recording their perception of how long they viewed those particular images. Images consisted of neutral, pleasant and goal-oriented images (such as an alluring cake or dessert). As was predicted, the researchers found that when participants viewed positive ‘approach motivation’ or a goal-oriented image, they perceived time as passing quickly.

Psychologist Steve Taylor, a researcher at Liverpool John Moores University, UK, maintains that the perception of the passage of time is largely conditioned by the amount of information we process. For children, time passes slower because they are very attentive to what is happening around them. They experience many things for the first time, which forces them to continuously consume a wealth of information.

In the case of adults Taylor explains, most days pass by with few, if any, brand new experiences. Most day-to-day activities during adulthood have become customary processes and life is generally familiar. This is why the passing of a year for a 50 year-old person can seem much shorter than twelve months during childhood or adolescence.

The concept of ‘new’ experiences appearing to prolong time is particularly noticeable in accident victims. Many people who have been involved in a traumatic accident describe these situations as feeling as if they were taking place in ‘slow motion’. This is not because time was processed slower by their brains, it’s actually due to a memory ‘trick’ according to neuroscientist David Eagleman from Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas. When an experience scares us, an area of the brain called the amygdala kicks into play. This part of the brain that is responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events. 

It is understood that in situations that provoke the fear response, the brain accumulates lots of new information, which is all collected within a very short period of time.This means that frightening experiences generate richer and denser memories, which make us believe that the time elapsed was greater than the physical reality. 

If you feel like time is passing by too quickly, there’s a few things you can do to help stop this. Whenever you get the chance to go to a different shop or pub, give it a go - instead of sticking to going to the same places. By breaking routines, you create new experiences and memories in the brain. This prevents the brain from merging all your experiences into the same memory, which makes life feel like it is passing faster than it really is. 

By creating a life which feels both fresh and exciting in the present, the weeks and years will feel longer in retrospect.

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