Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The speed of time, according to humans

Scientists now have a pretty good idea of why time seems to move faster as we get older.

Like with everything else in our lives, it’s all a matter of perception. Specifically, how we perceive a smaller chunk of time – such as a day, month, or year – compared to the whole of our lives. When you’re 16, a year is 1/16th of the entire time we’ve been alive, which feels like an immense chunk of time. When you’re 60, however, it’s only 1/60th of the time you’ve spent alive. Though it’s the same amount of time for both people, the percentages make it feel like a vastly different amount of time by comparison.

Stated another way, a year to a 16 year old feels like 62.5 feet of a 1,000 mile journey, while for 60-year-olds it’s just under 17 feet. To an eight year old, by comparison, it’s 125 feet. In our minds, that translates to the 16-year-old feeling like the year has gone by twice as fast as it did for the eight-year-old, and for the 60-year-old it feels like it’s gone by six times as fast. Each year becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of the experiences we’ve racked up, and farther ahead we travel the blurrier our memories become of the miles we traveled when we were just starting out.

On some level, this could be seen as inherently depressing. Personally, my first thought whenever I hear this is all about hourglasses, and the endless metaphors people use of the sand running out and time slipping through our fingers.

But my second thought is always one of absolute relief, because when you have enough of something it means there are always fewer consequences to completely screwing up one of them. One bad year out of 60 is far less obvious than one bad year out of 20, and even if you rack up a couple – as many of us have – they’ll soon get lost enough in the shuffle that they’ll be harder to remember.

And even when you’re going through them, they seem more manageable the more life experience you have under your belt. When you’re young and haven’t done much living, odds are that it will be the first time you’ve run into a particular trauma. Maybe it’s the first time you’ve run into any trauma, which will inevitably make whatever it is seem like the worst thing in the world.

When you’re older, however, your standards for what trauma is and what the “worst thing in the world” is get much higher. You’ve had practice surviving, and solving problems, and even when bad things happen your toolbox for dealing with them is much bigger.

And once they’ve passed, older people have more average and good memories in their heads to help crowd out the bad ones. Even traumatic years become just a few miles of the road we’ve traveled, a relatively small portion of what usually turns out to be a pleasant, rewarding overall journey.  

So don’t feel bad when time slips away faster than it used to. That just means you’ve gone a lot farther than you once had.