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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8 Comments

  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!

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

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