Why time speeds up as you age

Image of a clock melting over the edge of a box.
image: iStock / Getty

In his 1890 book, ‘The Principles of Psychology’, philosopher and psychologist William James wrote that ‘the same space of time seems shorter as we grow older’.

Have you ever felt that? That time seems to speed up as you age?

Months seem to go by in a matter of what feels like a few weeks. As children, the last few days before Christmas or a birthday drag on, yet as adults, come November, we’re counting the weeks to Christmas and can’t believe it’s come around again so fast.

There’s two reasons why we have this sense of time speeding up.

The first is that the brain encodes novel experiences much more richly that it does everyday, ordinary experiences. It’s like novelty is stored as HD, but for experiences that we’ve had several times, the brain knows what they are so doesn’t need to expend as much energy storing them. Unless there’s something different about them, the brain just encodes a faint trace.

This is why you can easily recall the details of any new experience, but forget what you had for lunch last Wednesday.

As children, everything is new and so all experiences are richly encoded in the brain. With so much information and data being processed, children have the sense that time passes very slowly. I remember the seemingly infinitely long drive to the seaside when I was a child. My sisters and I were soooo bored, constantly asking Mum and Dad when we’ll get there. It took sooooo long. It was only as an adult that I learned it only took 45 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. I have since looked again and again at the map, punched the location into my iPhone, and it always comes up the same – 45 minutes. Incredble!

For adults, with much less data processing in the brain, we have the sense of time moving quickly.

Except, of course, for those intense experiences we occasionally have, which are new or have a newness to them, like a first date with someone you really like. It’s the newness of it that extends the experience and ensures that the brain lays down strong memories. But you may not remember many details of the tenth date. It will pass much more quickly for you, unless of course you do something different.

And herein lies the key to slowing time down. Do something different!

Try a new recipe. Either cook something you’ve never cooked before or eat a meal you’ve not tried before. Take a different route to work. Study. Learn something new. Learn a new language, or a new dance, but just do something different. Break out of your everyday patterns.

Novelty also causes neurogenesis in the brain, the birth of brand-new brain cells. While other people are losing brain cells every day, neurogenesis can counteract the effect somewhat, richly forming new structures to hold the new memories.

There’s another theory as to why time seems to speed up as we grow older. It was first put forward by French philosopher Paul Janet in 1897. It’s sometimes known as ‘log time’. It’s that as we age, a year becomes a smaller fraction of our entire lives up to that point.

A year for a 5-year-old is one fifth (or 20%) of their life so far, but a year to a 50-year old is one fiftieth of their life (or 2% of it) so it seems to pass ten times faster. If you’re 33, a year is 3% of your life so far, so time passes almost seven times faster than it did when you were five. Time for an 80-year-old passes almost in the blink of an eye, sixteen times faster than it does for a 5-year-old.

And if we’re honest with ourselves as adults, this just about feels right.

I’ve found myself pondering on how time is experienced by a baby at the moment of its birth. With no prior experience of time to compare against, no perception of anything to attach labels or meaning to, regardless of which of the above theories we go by, a moment is like infinity, and the first few months of life stretch for eons. Yet for the parents the birth passes in a few minutes and soon the memory is left behind, accelerating into the past. 

Your parents experienced your first few years much more quickly that you did, and if you are a parent yourself, then the same can be said for your children.

Overall, the same spans of time are experienced at vastly different rates for different people.

Again, the key to slowing things down is to try something new. I remember when we bought our house a few years ago. It required a huge amount of work. My entire DIY experience to that point was changing a light bulb. I had to learn everything. 

Holding a drill was a first for me. Knocking down walls and putting new ones up, brand new. Laying floors – yep – first time! Skirting boards, a first. I even adjusted the size of a doorway because it’s such an old house and they don’t make doors that size any more. Everything was totally novel. Everything was learning.

There were times when I honestly felt like we’d never finish. It just seemed to drag on. Yet it only took 5 months. Sometimes now, when I notice that 5 months has just passed in what felt like a week, I can’t actually believe the renovations only took 5 months.

Shortly after the Covid pandemic began, amid the lockdowns and incredibly novel experiences for everyone, I recall an internet meme of, “What a year this month has been.”

It really did feel like a year.

So have a go this week. See if you can pack in some novel experiences. Cook that meal. Visit that place. Speak with that person. Register on that course. Walk a new path. Pluck up the courage and ask that person on a date. Expand yourself. Stretch into new horizons. Whatever you do, just try something new.

To read more about this and other matters of perception, check out my book, ‘Why Woo-Woo Works‘.

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  1. Thureya Roberts on March 17, 2022 at 12:24 pm

    Excellent article! Really enjoyed reading it, makses so much sense and has inspired me to try something new!

    • David Hamilton on March 17, 2022 at 3:27 pm

      Thanks. I hope you enjoy your new experiences. 🙂

  2. Bonnie Leighty on March 17, 2022 at 2:34 pm

    My e husbands wife of 50 years just had brain surgery to remove a begin tumor on her frontal lobe. She was having memory issues and now is learning to exercise her brain to build muscle memory. I have forwarded her your newsletter and I thank you for your dedication to life!

    • David Hamilton on March 17, 2022 at 3:27 pm

      I hope it is helpful and that she makes a swift recovery. 🙂

  3. Nicola on March 18, 2022 at 8:10 pm

    Wonderful to know this, I will be looking for new experiences to expand my mind now. Thank you so much

  4. Tony Fitzsimons on March 23, 2022 at 10:29 am

    Great article that explains why I’m obsessed with travelling to new places

  5. Emma on April 11, 2022 at 5:32 pm

    Wow! I have always wondered why time just seems to dissapear! And I’m only 15! This is an absolutely amazing article, loved every second of it, and it has really inspired me to change some things, thank you. You really are a wealth of surprising and useful information; I will be coming back for more very soon!

    • Czotus on February 3, 2024 at 10:56 am

      sweetie it gets moving so fast that it actually starts to become frightening. it means even If I have half of my life still I’ll only get to experience a decades worth of it.

  6. Time, Time, Time! • ALEXANDRIA BLAELOCK on April 28, 2022 at 10:00 am

    […] to Dr David R Hamilton, it’s about novelty – the brain encodes information more deeply when it comes to new […]

  7. Ken on January 27, 2023 at 1:35 am

    I have often considered the perceived acceleration of time as we age. I have come to believe that our perception of the passage of time is purely experiential. If that is the case, we wouldn’t begin to recognize the acceleration of time until reach an age where we remember things that happened before. Therefore, this too would be “different for different people.” In my case I don’t remember anything prior to about three years of age. For other people their first memories may be earlier or later. Once you reach an age where you recognize the passage of time, everything from that point on represents all the time there ever was from your perspective.
    Looking back on our lives it is as if we are driving a race car. At the starting line our speed (perception of time) was zero. But as soon as we began to press on the accelerator (began to remember our experiences) we began to recognize the passage of time. So, once we remembered a birthday, and then the next birthday finally rolled around, it seemed like it had taken all the time that there ever was for that next birthday to come around. Each birthday thereafter seemed to come just a tiny bit quicker. Until at a ripe old age, it seems like you have barely blown out the candles until they are being lit once again.
    The passage of time is also relative to specific experiences. As Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” In the present, time can be slowed down or sped up by specific experiences. You mentioned the slow passage of time due to the boredom of the trip to the beach. Boredom is one way that time can slow down. Constant sensory stimulation is one way that time can speed up. Computer Gamers can recognize this when they become absorbed in a video game, many hours can pass and seem like minutes.
    I often wonder if my generation perceived their lifetime to pass more quickly than some previous generations due to the fact that we had more distractions, more constant sensory stimulation (movies, television, radios, computers, etc.) And will the upcoming generations find their lifetime passing even more quickly having cut their teeth on cell phones, game controllers, and whatever comes next.

    • David Hamilton on January 30, 2023 at 9:38 am

      Thanks Ken. This is really fascinating and well thought out!!

  8. Bobby on March 20, 2023 at 2:19 am

    Maybe time is really moving faster. If time is velocity through a dimension we can’t perceive and we are accelerating in the third dimension…maybe time is accelerating as well. Maybe human consciousness is the only way to measure that increase.

  9. Dean James on April 14, 2023 at 12:11 pm

    Here’s me thinking I made that theory up Haha!
    Also I was thinking… Is this because when we access our memory’s which are stored in the subconscious which has no concept of time or reality, therefore the
    subconscious only knows we exist up until that point and does not understand that there is time ahead of us?
    So as we move forward in life and the years pass we remember less of each year however we do remember key points.
    I wonder what would happen if we kept every single memory and as detailed as it first happened , .would we be overloaded and confused?

  10. Michelle on April 29, 2023 at 10:40 am

    This is an excellent article. I have often discussed this with friends and my students, but your article really explains so well. I had to share it. Have you seen the video about your life in jelly beans? I show that to my stydents when we discuss time in a goals lesson. it is very interesting. Again, fabulous article!
    Thank you!

  11. Richard on May 6, 2023 at 8:20 am

    except when you are engrossed in doing something you are familiar with but really like doing, then time flies by. so the degree of conscious absorption is an important factor in time sensing

  12. Cathy Brouillette on May 28, 2023 at 3:59 am

    thank you so very much… this was such an interesting article…I kept it so I can go back and read it again

  13. Joe G. on June 13, 2023 at 5:10 am

    I think Paget’s theory was quite convincing. The way it utilized fractions of time, based on our age, made perfect sense. I, and almost everyone else I know, definitely feel the time passes more quickly as we age. For someone who dwells as much as I do on this phenomenon, I don’t know how it took me this long to search for an answer; I suppose I thought there was no answer. Well, I was very wrong. Great article.

    • David Hamilton on June 23, 2023 at 8:38 am

      Thanks Joe. I know what you mean. I’m not sure why I took so long either. 🙂

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