AH, the languorous days of endless summer! Who among us doesn’t remember those days and wonder wistfully where they’ve gone? Why does time seem to speed up as we age? Even the summer solstice — the longest, sunniest day of the year — seems to have passed in a flash.
No less than the great William James opined on the matter, thinking that the apparent speed of time’s passage was a result of adults’ experiencing fewer memorable events:
“Each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.”
Don’t despair. I am happy to tell you that the apparent velocity of time is a big fat cognitive illusion and happy to say there may be a way to slow the velocity of our later lives.
Although the sense that we perceive time as accelerating as we age is very common, it is hard to prove experimentally. In one of the largest studies to date, Dr. Marc Wittmann of the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health, in Germany, interviewed 499 German and Austrian subjects ranging in age from 14 to 94 years; he asked each subject how quickly time seemed to pass during the previous week, month, year and decade. Surprisingly, there were few differences related to age. With one exception: when researchers asked the subjects about the 10-year interval, older subjects were far more likely than the younger subjects to report that the last decade had passed quickly.
Other, non-age-related factors influence our perception of time. Recent research shows that emotions affect our perception of time. For example, Dr. Sylvie Droit-Volet, a psychology professor at Blaise Pascal University, in France, manipulated subjects’ emotional state by showing them movies that excited fear or sadness and then asked them to estimate the duration of the visual stimulus. She found that time appears to pass more slowly when we are afraid.
Attention and memory play a part in our perception of time. To accurately gauge the passage of time required to accomplish a given task, you have to be able to focus and remember a sequence of information. That’s partly why someone with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder has trouble judging time intervals and grows impatient with what seems like the slow passage of time.