“Where does the time go?” older people often remark. Even though we know time is marked in discrete and predesignated units that are the same for everybody, there is still the sense that it increases its pace as we age. Feeling that a week, year or even a decade has rapidly slipped by can feel psychologically unpleasant and depressing.
Time can be measured objectively, but our perception of it is subjective and complex . As the philosopher Henri Bergson and the novelist Marcel Proust point out so beautifully in their writing, time is so much more than the clock-ticking seconds, minutes and hours. Rather, time is in our brain and perception. Indeed, this frightening sensation that time is speeding up as we grow older is a recognised phenomenon that is now studied by psychologists.
A paper by Mark Landau, at the University of Kansas, examined what creates the perception that time seems to speed up with age – and how this can trigger existential disorientation. The team looked at ‘chunking’ – where people bundle separate life moments into one broad memory because they are repeated so often. So, for example, if you commute to work every morning, eat fish on Friday or go to a dance class every Thursday, you are likely to chunk these trips into one broad memory of the journey to the office, meal or class.
As we age and settle into routines we begin chunking more and more of our life into bigger bundles. This means that fewer events seem to have taken place in a set period of your life. We chunk huge areas of our life such as the commute, work, family time, eating and hobbies until we can barely distinguish one day from another.
The study asked 107 volunteers to write about events over the past year. Some of the participants described how these were similar to events of other years – a task encouraging them to chunk experiences. A second group of participants wrote about how events and activities might have turned out differently – the ‘no chunking’ group.
Researchers found that people who had chunked together the year’s events perceived it as having passed more quickly than an ‘objective’ calendar year. In contrast, the non-chunking group didn’t feel this way.
The researchers concluded that: “It appears that perceiving a given period as passing faster depends on whether one chunks that period.” They added that chunking experiences depletes life of meaning because it strips memories of evocative details – and that nostalgia could be a tool to combat this.
An earlier study by psychologists Marc Wittmann and Sandra Lenhoff, at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, found that the more new experiences we have the less we chunk memories and the longer time seems to take to pass.
When we look back at a new experience, it will seem to have taken longer that everyday, repeat experiences. The more new experiences we have in a period of time, the more our brain will encode from them and the longer that time period will seem in retrospect.
So what’s the key to slowing the pace of life – or at least making it seem that way?
- Have as many fresh experiences as you can?
- Meet new people, learn new skills, do things differently?
- Shake up your routine
- Psychologists suggest mindfulness could be an antidote. Taking notice of all the details and uniqueness of a moment will make it less likely to be chunked in with other similar experiences. So look for differences in your daily commute and pay attention to the faces of the people you pass, the smells, the noises – make each commute a unique experience.