I’m going to hit a milestone birthday this year, an age that’s cleanly divisible by 5. While other people use such occasions to celebrate and reflect on their lives, I often find myself thinking “how does time, which passes linearly, feel like it’s speeding up?” This thought is often followed by “man, I’m gonna die pretty soon.”
I hope the latter thought is just my usual sunny disposition, but I’m not alone in the former. Many people feel like the years go by quicker as they get older. As in, people literally perceive time to pass faster than it did when they were younger.
And not just because they fall asleep for three hours every morning and afternoon
Maybe you have noticed it yourself. Think back to your last birthday, and then think back to the whole year you spent in the eighth grade. The eighth grade feels like it was a lot longer, doesn’t it?
Although every moment in grade school felt like the longest time possible
The good news is that time isn’t actually going any faster. The International Committee of Weights and Measures defines the second as the “duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom”. I wonder if the second ever felt disenfranchised for being seen in the simplest terms and most convenient definitions, like the Breakfast Club.
Little does the International Committee of Weights and Measures know that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, and several billion periods of caesium radiation
The bad news is that time isn’t too likely to slow down for you any time soon, because time perception can be a mathematical function of age. For example, at age 5, 1 year is 1/5th, or 20%, of your whole life. At age 40, its 2.5%. So, as you get older, a set period of time actually can feel like it passes faster, because it represents a smaller portion of your overall memory.
Likewise, the last paragraph may have passed quickly because you skipped it when you saw it had math
That’s only one reason time may pass faster as you age, though. Another, of course, if good old-fashioned stress. As these guys point out, stress will make every day feel super long, but will make the passage of longer periods seem retrospectively short, because we’re paying attention to close deadlines and not realizing that weeks and months are passing. Which sucks.
It will suck even more for this guy when he realizes breaking a clock doesn’t actually stop time
Time to get super depressing! Another reason people don’t notice the recent years fly by is that nothing is going on in their lives. The reminiscence effect is the idea that big life events are easier to remember. The problem is that these big life events – your first kiss, your college experiences, marriage, etc. – don’t come as often when you’re older. The time distance between big “reminiscence events”, then, gets longer. As Trump would say, Sad!
“My favourite reminiscence events all involve casual racism”
Let’s have one more for the ever-shortening road. While not a concrete theory, there is the idea your body’s internal clock, which is actually a series of neuronal and hormonal connections, sets your internal “pace”, and as you get old the pacemaker slows down, while real time doesn’t. So even if you’re not stressed and have plenty of great recent memories, time will still speed up because you’re old.
On the plus side, you can drive like a lunatic and wear your pants as high as you want
That’s all pretty disheartening. My editor thinks I should say something inspirational here, so here we go:
Never forget that you’re on an inescapable march towards death, and you only go faster as you get closer.
I’ll try again. Even if life may start to speed up on you, you can slow it back down. This M.D. basically says you should slow down, meditate, and pay attention to your day-to-day life. Which makes sense. Your stress levels will go down and your reminiscence events will go up if you actively try to enjoy life now and then. Make yourself enjoy it, if you have to.
For example, lacking friends, this guy throws a frisbee to no one
So, as time goes on and you pass through your own milestone birthdays, just relax. Take life in as much as you can and make some more memories. Time isn’t going any faster, thanks to that stubborn caesium-133. So chill out and enjoy your birthday.
After all, it beats not having a birthday, right?
Dan is off to buy higher pants. Email him at Dan[at]scienceninjas.ca for topics you want to see here.