BB #72: Perception of Time

As people age, especially later in life, most report that time seems to pass faster. That is certainly true in my case — Mondays I often find myself surprised that it’s already laundry day again. Friends my age report the same thing; the weeks, months, and years, seem to pass at an ever faster rate.

My theory was it’s mainly due to percentages. At ten years old a year is 10% of a lifetime, but at 60 years old it’s just 1.666%.

Recently, a friend of mine floated an interesting alternate theory.

Her idea is that as kids our minds are largely free from anxiety and worry. As we grow older our minds are increasingly taken up with those worrisome life issues that plague us all — our jobs; our mortgage; our health; the lives of those we care for; and much more.

Our minds are always nibbling at the edges of things large and small. We think constantly about our world and its future.

I think she’s on to something. Compare how slowly time passes when we sit idly and bored waiting for something with how fast it passes when we’re engaged. When we’re idle and bored, minutes tick by slowly. When we’re engaged and having a good time, a day flies by.

There is the expression, “A watched pot never boils.” The idea is that one is just staring thoughtlessly at the pot waiting. On the other hand, if one finds something else to occupy those minutes, they pass more quickly.

§

Ironically, reflecting back on a busy day makes that day seem long, whereas thinking about a day in which nothing happens makes it seem short.

That makes sense. A busy filled day stores more memories, but a day with little to remember is just empty hours.

This too, I think, accounts for why time passes faster as we age. Much of that anxiety and worry isn’t new. In fact a lot of it is the same loop we find ourselves in day after day. Those worries are constant and usually unchanging. They don’t create a lot of new memories.

When we look back on days, weeks, and years, filled with the same tasks and the same worries, they tend to blend together and not account for much.

§

When we’re young everything is new and there is so much to learn, especially when we’re very young.

Have you ever noticed how children instantly spot minor changes to the rooms they regularly inhabit? Their young minds are constantly taking in the world, so they examine it in more detail than adults who’ve become used to it.

There are children who live in difficult situations that cause them worry, and it would be interesting to compare their sense of time passing with children in safer situations. Does time pass more quickly for children with anxieties than it does for children without them? Or does the young mind always have so much engagement that time always passes slowly?

Chart 1. The percentage of your life that one year represents.

There is also my original theory about percentages. A year is always 10% of a lifetime to a ten-year-old, regardless of how much anxiety they may have.

Conversely, regardless of how peaceful and anxiety-free one is at 60, a year is still a much smaller fraction of one’s life.

§ §

As it turns out, science offers another answer to the increased pace of time as we age. Our brains slow down, and time literally passes faster for us. (And I do mean literally literally.)

No doubt this is also a factor, but there are 40-year-old baseball players who can still hit a 95 MPH fastball. My guess is that the brain slowing down is more an issue as one gets much older. Yet people in their 40s do report that time seems to pass faster than it once did.

Chart 2. Zooming in on age 10 onwards.

I think my friend’s theory may account for a bigger share of this than mine. As the charts above show, The biggest change happens pretty early — by age 10 a year is down to 10% (at age 1, of course, it’s 100%).

At age 20, it’s down to 5%, and at age 50 it’s only down to 2%. One actually has to reach age 100 for it to drop to 1%, so this may not account for the lion’s share of our perception of time speeding up.

That said, by age 40 a year is 2.5% of our lifetime, so I think it’s still something of a factor.

Stay timeless, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.


About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to “BB #72: Perception of Time

  • Wyrd Smythe

    It really isn’t intentional, but it’s kind of funny how Brain Bubble posts and Sideband posts are keeping pace with each other.

    That said, short single-topic posts like this are the original intent of Brain Bubbles — my form of tweets, so to speak — so they have the potential to far surpass the Sidebands, which are meant more as highly technical asides or additions.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    (If you’ve ever wondered why I comment on my own posts, the main reason is so that it makes them show up in my Reader/Conversations feed. There is also that they can be an aside or something that occurred to me after I published the post. Just a kind of postscript as it were.)

    ((The alternative would be to Like my own posts — that also makes them show in my my feed — but Liking one’s own stuff has always been considered rather gauche.))

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I always figured you commented for the aside / postscript nature. It never occurred to me it was logistical to keep it high in the Reader Conversation view. Sometimes I end up addressing your comments when I comment rather than the post itself!

    I’m not sure children necessarily have less anxiety than adults. It seems like children are anxious about different things. In retrospect, those childhood concerns seem, well, childish, and we’re inclined as adults to remember them as less dire than what we later face, but I think as a child they loomed just as large as adult concerns to an adult. Granted, everyone’s childhood is different.

    I think your theory about the percentages is right, but it’s a higher level description of your other point about how much children notice. When we’re young, there are many more uniquely remembered events per year, because a much higher proportion of them were novel. With each passing year, the portion of events that were novel falls, as more and more events are just more of previously encountered categories. I think it’s why most of our adult years tend to blur together. Any one year typically might have maybe one or two, at most, uniquely remembered events.

    Of course, at this point, most of my childhood years blur together too, so distance across time also has its effects.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It’s not a matter of high in the Conversations feed, but of at all. It’s very unlikely I’d miss someone commenting on my own post, but there are times — using my iPad and Safari, for instance — that I just open the Reader/Conversations link, and in that case I could miss a comment since the feed doesn’t know of my interest. (Although I’d probably notice the Notifications bell having a dot on it.)

      I have noticed you addressing those comments. 🙂

      As you note, the nature of anxiety differs between children and adults. I would guess that adult perceptions are more textured and existential — they have more of a sense about the realities of life, of what is at risk or can be lost. And as you also note, childhoods vary. Mine was pretty worry-free; very little caused me to fret. That’s been true of most kids I’ve known, although certainly some children are in stressful situations.

      One thing I’ve noticed about retirement is that it’s the first time since kindergarten that my time is truly my own. That’s done wonders for my sense of peace and harmony. Once school starts, only the summers are free, and even those can be imposed upon by parents. Once full-time work starts, the only free time is vacation, and those are often corrupted by trying too hard to have a great time and “make it count.” But retirement, especially when one is single, is a return to the carefree days of being very young when all I did was play.

      I do think there’s some difference between how we perceive time passing versus how we look back and remember. The days, even weeks, seem to pass more quickly, but when I look back at all the books I’ve read, the movies and shows I’ve watched, the posts I’ve written, the topics I’ve studied, or the miles I’ve walked, there seems a lot going on. It’s my guess that the science view, of brain activity slowing down, may be the main factor with my friend’s idea about adult worries and concerns coming in second, and my percentage idea coming in last. But that’s just my guess.

      “Any one year typically might have maybe one or two, at most, uniquely remembered events.”

      I would hope for most it’s more than that! I suppose it depends on what one finds unique. I’m constantly seeking new things because I crave variety and change. Back when I was a career programmer, for instance, I used to try to learn one new language each year. My whole thing about storytelling is “take me somewhere new!” That’s why I like the smaller off-beat films. There’s a greater chance of something new.

      That’s been one of my complaints about superhero movies. Not too long ago I finally saw the first Avengers movie, and I was struck by how much like the most recent Marvel films it was. Same fights, same massive CGI destruction, only the details vary. They’ve become a commodity, like pizza or fast food. People love the spectacle of it all, but personally I need more than that.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I actually depend on WP emailing comment notifications, both for my own blog and others. Although that requires email rules to single out comments on other blogs replying to me so they don’t get lost in the avalanche of busy threads. WP is usually pretty reliable about the emails, although occasionally it hiccups and I don’t get a notification.

        I would imagine retirement being better that pre-K in many ways, since now you have the means and freedom to do what you want. If you want to have cookies for lunch, it’s an option. If you want a new TV, it’s an option. That said, I don’t know how well I remember my pre-K years. Sometimes a memory I thought happened during that time turns out to be something that happened years later (or vice-versa).

        I know what you mean about superhero movies. I have the same reaction to Star Wars movies and shows, or the Godzilla vs. Kong movie I watched last week. As entertainment, they’re pretty shallow and bland. I do enjoy them in the moment, but once they’re over, they have no lasting effect. I don’t come out of them pondering anything new. (Well, other than noting attention to story technique.)

        Some of that is simply knowing too much science. I imagine a lot of kids come out of Godzilla vs. Kong marveling at the idea of a hollow Earth, or out of Batman or Iron Man movies with the idea of a guy with enough equipment being able to do the things they do. I know when I was a kid, the idea of getting hit with gamma rays and turning into the Hulk seemed like it would be a great deal of fun.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I used to have WP send me emails about comments on other blogs, but gave that up in lieu of the Reader or just the Notification bell. I just get emails about new posts and comments on my own blog. Those go to my laptop, though, so if I’m on some other device I don’t see them. (Which is fine, I do all my posting and commenting from this laptop.)

        Definitely one has more agency as an adult! That’s part of what makes retirement so much fun. Firstly, it’s a freedom I don’t really recall having ever had. Secondly, I have that agency. It’s a lifestyle I’ve never really had before (a silver lining to having been imprisoned in Corporate America all those decades). The only downside is the aging, which mostly sucks.

        Work, I think for most, goes a long way towards that “same old thing” notion. I was fortunate in being able to make major changes roughly every seven years, so the exact type of work I did changed, as did the set of co-workers. A small part of what drove me to early retirement was that my last position was the same sort of work, CRM, that I’d done in a previous position (a few of the same co-workers, too). It was more the circumstances of work — the open office and that The Company was moving away from custom designed software — but that was a part of it.

        As you say, most of that big-budget CGI thrill ride stuff is pretty shallow and bland, but thinking about it (and this is personal taste, of course) I’m not sure knowing too much science is much of a factor. There are many stories way off the science path that I enjoy very much. What might be a bigger factor for me is knowing too much logic or having too much critical thinking. Superhero stories rarely survive critical analysis. I can accept a premise, no matter how fantastic, if the story holds together logically within that premise.

        There is also the component of massive casual violence that’s been bothering me for a long time now. I first really noticed it during the LotR movies — the massive CGI battle that, if taken at face value, implies thousands killed for my entertainment — but the first glimmers go back to blowing up the Death Star (as well as destroying Alderaan). Which, hmmm …gives me an idea for a post…

        Ah, yes, magical gamma rays. Or radioactive spiders! 😀

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        My cousin works for a company that went open office. It’s no surprise that most of the people there now want to continue working remote. He said they’re requiring anyone with a private office to come back. I wish that was the dividing line where I work. I have an office I wouldn’t hesitate to give up to stay completely remote. My shop looked at going to an open office a few years ago, but that was just before the leadership purge.

        On movies and logic, I guess I’ve become jaded enough that I view watching those movies similar to watching a Bug Bunny cartoon. I don’t really expect them to make that much sense. (Although there are limits.) At least unless the movie puts on airs about being a serious story for serious people. Then I hold it to a higher standard.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I really hated the open office. The kind of work I do requires focus and concentration. Also way more desk space for manuals and printouts. It was definitely a big part of my retire now calculus.

        I laughed about the Bugs Bunny comparison! It’s true that such movies are as cartoonish and lacking in physical grounding and logic. The problem (in my eyes) is that, firstly, they are filmed to be as realistic as possible, and secondly, they do, as you say, put on the air of being a serious stories for serious people. I’ve mentioned more than once that they take themselves too seriously. (Which is why I did enjoy the Deadpool movies.) If they were, in general, more along the lines of Bugs Bunny I’d probably like them better.

        As an aside, I’ve been working my way through a Japanese anime series, Fairy Tail (yes, tail). It’s a fantasy about Wizards and magic. It’s utterly preposterous and very much oriented towards teenage boys. I mention it because it does remind me a bit of Bugs Bunny or similar. Characters shake off massive damage like nothing. It’s cartoonish in the extreme, but has aspects that endear it to me enough to keep watching. (328 episodes, so I’ve been chewing at it for a while when I’m in the mood to watch something cartoonish and not demanding. I’ve got a bit more than 100 episodes left, and I do find myself wondering why sometimes. But it can be rather inventive and fun, and I get such a kick out of the character Happy.)

  • Anonymole

    Time passes faster due to Death’s sadistic sense of humor.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    On a semi-related topic, I just read an article in Sci Am to the effect that the hypothalamus has to choose between laying down memories and working on predictions. As someone with a congenital severe hearing defect — who is constantly trying to predict what people actually said to me — I can’t help but wonder if this is why my memory for books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen is so bad.

    I’ve long thought it was my approach of looking around and forward but not back — the past never interested me that much — but maybe there’s an actual physical brain aspect to this? Interesting to speculate about.

  • Michael

    I tend to think the apparent acceleration of time is related to what Mike described above: the frequency of novel events. When the frequency is less and we realize a number of years have passed, it seems like it just whipped by. But it’s the first years in novel circumstances that seem to log the most memories and sense of slower-time. Like my first year working in the company I work at now versus the last year. The first year everything was new. Now most of it is a situation I’m equipped to understand quickly and respond to much more comprehensively. The first year I moved to a new part of the country, the first year I participated in Native American ceremony, the transition to high school, the transition to college. These all seem to reflect a more intense compression of novel experiences and memories, and so seem to have been slower times… you know?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think novelty is definitely a part of what affects our psychological sense of time passing, especially our looking back on it. There seems more to it than just that, though. There are times when I’m engaged with something novel — writing code or text or music, for instance — where time seems to pass quickly because of the deep mental focus. OTOH, I’m also sometimes surprised at how fast time seems to pass when I am idle. I suspect that has to do with my mind slowing down.

      There seems a difference, too, in how time seems to pass in the moment and our sense of it looking back. My back has been out for over a week, and while there’s nothing novel about that, it’s made the week seem very long both in the time passing sense and in the looking back sense.

      An aside about new situations: Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that sense of starting a new learning curve. I actively revel in the sense of newness and the understanding how, in a year or so, something that seems fresh and challenging will all seem old hat. Maybe I’m an oddball, but I love the processes of learning something new!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Thinking about this, a lot seems to have to do with our focus. Even tasks that aren’t novel (e.g. shoveling snow from my driveway and sidewalk) can pass quickly if the mind is occupied. Tasks such as coding or writing (or gaming) can eat up lots of hours quickly. Even just sitting and thinking can pass quickly when my mind is engaged.

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: