I know I’m not the only one who feels like time is progressively passing by faster. It feels like whole semesters are over in a blink. I can’t quite believe it’s already nearing the end of 2021, when 2020 seemed like it ended so recently. The never-ending pandemic hasn’t really helped matters with the way it has turned our lives upside down. The first announcements of schools moving online definitely don’t feel like they were a year and a half ago nor does a whole new summer having passed after the COVID summer (which is how I refer to summer of 2020 because … well I guess it speaks for itself) seem real.
Most conversations I have with my friends about certain memories are usually punctuated by some variation of “It’s been so long already?” or “oh wow time really flies” or “this year went by so fast.” We all feel it: the ever-increasing pace of time. I have always chalked it down to the increasing workload of each year as we move higher in the education system and then out into the world. Of course it feels like time is going by fast if you spend whole days just working on one thing after another, focused on checking off tasks on a to-do list that grows longer with each step into adulthood. But, it turns out, as I recently learned, it’s not just growing responsibility and the demands of adulthood that are to blame for this feeling.
One reasons time seems to speed up as we grow older, according to Dr. Santosh Kesari, a neurologist, neuro-oncologist, neuroscientist and chair of the Department of Translational Neurosciences and Neurotherapeutics at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, is because a year of life amounts to a lesser percentage of our existence as we get older. He states, “For a 10-year-old, one year is 10 percent of their lives. For a 60-year-old, one year is less than two percent of their lives.”
Furthermore, Kesari makes the case that the constant exposure to new things and new ideas as children leave lasting impressions, therefore as we remember our childhood by memorable events, it seems longer because we were constantly processing new information. A phenomenon that decreases with age as we are now familiar with the world around us. It’s pretty much the same reason the journey going somewhere new seems to take longer than coming back home; you’ve already seen it when you’re coming back. Our brains like novelty and retain memories of it, stretching out the time in which our lives take unfamiliar turns.
Another explanation is one directly linked to our brain activity and neurological chemistry. Professor Adrian Bejan of Duke University posits that “measurable ‘clock time’ is not the same as the time perceived by the human mind.” The ‘mind time’ is a sequence of images, and based on data from neural signal processing, Professor Bejan makes the argument that the rate at which we process visual information decreases or slows as we grow older, and this is what makes time “speed up.”
Dr. Clifford Lazarus, a licensed psychologist, summarizes that this is partly due to the increased size and complexity of our brains’ neural networks which means means electrochemical signals must travel greater distances, and partly due to nerve damage caused by aging which creates resistance to the signals, further slowing our visual processing. Essentially, our brains don’t quite keep up with time and this makes everything a little faster.
I admit, finding out that there is potentially a physics and neurology based explanation for time flying by was a little reassuring. It’s not just me. It’s not just you. It’s just one of the things about being human. But, it’s also a little scary. If our brains are wired to let our lives fly by, there’s no way around it. Life is just destined to be one “oh wow this year is almost over” after another. Nobody wants to look up one day and be struck by the amount of time that has passed by them.
The lesson to be learned, if you’re looking for one, is to pursue novelty and try to stay engaged in the mundane. If time is moving faster, we have no choice but to move with it, while doing our best to expand the capacity of our memory. I’ll be honest: I have no idea how to actually make myself more engaged, and the demands and constraints of daily life restrict the extent to which one can pursue novelty. I won’t pretend that learning the scientific reason for the increasing pace of time is going to magically make it any better. So, if you’re not looking for a lesson, consider this a fun fact to tuck away for a rainy day. It should at least be an interesting addition to a conversation. Who knows, it just might lead to the kind of novelty that will make your brain slow time down for a bit.