"People like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubborn persistent illusion." - Albert Einstein
Ever feel like time is racing by, faster and faster as you age? You look back and think, “But I was just 19, 25, 35?”
It’s not just you. Older people do perceive time passing differently. The earliest theorist of this concept was Robert Lemlich, who wrote the article “Subjective Acceleration of Time with Aging,” back in 1975. His theory was that your perception relies on the percentage or fraction of life being experienced. For a 4-year-old, one year is 25% of her life. For a 40-year-old, a year is 2.5% of her life, so it seems shorter in relation.
Now, 40 years later, neuroscientists have a deeper understanding of why time slows as we age, and their studies have far reaching implications about how all of us sense time and how we can manipulate it to our advantage.
Arguably, the leading researcher on the topic is Stanford University researcher, David Eagleman, whose most influential research was reported on here in Popular Science Magazine.
His studies show that our brains actually build time, in time, and don’t experience things at immediate face value as one might think. “Brain time,” as he calls it, is a time delay that exists in everyone’s processing, and the brain uses this mechanism to interpret and construct experiences and memories.
Eagleman says our brains create this delay in order to “take sufficient time to settle on its best interpretation of what happened [because] it is all it will have to work with later, so it had better invest the time.”
This delay, coupled with the way in which we interpret and construct memory, makes our brain “rubbery,” according to Eagleman, and he believes this ability lends itself to experiencing and creating temporal illusions.
As Eagleman says here in his TED talk, “I can’t tell you how to live longer, but I tell you how to make it seem as if you’ve lived longer.”
He believes lack of novel input, or new experiences, is a key component to why time speeds up as we age (versus Lemlich’s theory about the percentage of time lived). When what you experience routine the brain doesn’t need to lay down rich, extended memories. But if experience is “novel,” it gets registered in higher density and this makes past events seem to last longer.
Here’s his example: “When you get to the end of a childhood summer and you look back, you have so many novel things [because you’re still learning the rules of the world]. As you get older, you figure out the rules of the world… things are not novel to you anymore,” says Eagleman. “You’ve seen all the pattern before. So when you get to the end of an adult summer, and you look back, there’s not that much new footage to draw from and as a result the whole thing seems to have moved very quickly.”
So, if you want to slow down time, it’s simple -- seek novelty. As an example of this in action, consider your commute. Ever get to work and not realize you were in the car for 20 minutes. It feels like you just “arrived.” Eagleman says that’s because driving to work the same way makes it a zero sum time event since it’s entirely predictive. If you drove a different way, time would seem to slow. If you want a slower life, you must shake up the patterns and make new memory “footage” that slows your time perception.
So change your routines, add in new experiences at unique times of day, and just generally, seek novel experiences.
And, while you’re at it, seek out awe-inspiring activities. Eagleman’s colleagues at Stanford, along with researchers at the University of Minnesota, recently found, “Participants who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available.” Experiencing the wonders of the world essentially slowed time. They report, “Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.”
And this, of course, aligns perfectly with Eagleman’s existing theory. What is awe if not a novel experience at an extreme? So go forth, seek novelty, and look for the amazing and awe-inspiring wonders of our world. You’ll be living a richer life and you’ll think you’re living a longer too.