Life's A Blur

by Bryan July. 08, 2012 3125 views

I've always wondered why time seems to be speeding up as I get older, especially since my daughter (my replacement:) was born. I found this interesting article by a guy named Steve Taylor that sums up some of the best theories why we feel this.

The Proportional and Biological Theories

So why do we experience this speeding up of time?
One popular answer is the ‘proportional’ theory, which suggests that the important factor is that, as you get older, each time period constitutes a smaller fraction of your life as a whole. This theory seems to have been first put forward in 1877 by Paul Janet, who suggested the law that, as William James describes it, “the apparent length of an interval at a given epoch of a man’s life is proportional to the total length of the life itself. A child of 10 feels a year as 1/10 of his whole life – a man of 50 as 1/50, the whole life meanwhile apparently preserving a constant length.”2 At the age of one month, a week is a quarter of your whole life, so it’s inevitable that it seems to last forever. At the age of 14, one year constitutes around 7% of your life, so that seems to be a large amount of time too. But at the age of 30 a week is only a tiny percentage of your life, and at 50 a year is only 2% of your life, and so your subjective sense is that these are insignificant periods of time which pass very quickly.
There is some sense to this theory – it does offer an explanation for why the speed of time seems to increase so gradually and evenly, with almost mathematical consistency. One problem with it, however, is that it tries to explain present time purely in terms of past time. The assumption behind it is that we continually experience our lives as a whole, and perceive each day, week, month or year becoming more insignificant in relation to the whole. But we don’t live our lives like this. We live in terms of much smaller periods of time, from hour to hour and day to day, dealing with each time period on its own merits, independently of all that has gone before.
There are also biological theories. One of these is that the speeding up of time is linked to how our metabolism gradually slows down as we grow older. Because children’s hearts beat faster than ours, because they breathe more quickly and their blood flows more quickly etc., their body clocks ‘cover’ more time within the space of 24 hours than ours do as adults. Children live through more time simply because they’re moving through time faster. Think of a clock which is set to run 25% faster than normal time – after 12 hours of normal time it has covered 15 hours, after 24 hours of normal time it has covered 30, which means that, from that clock’s point of view, a day has contained more time than usual. On the other hand old people are like clocks which run slower than normal, so that they lag behind, and cover less than 24 hours’ time against a normal clock.

Also from a biological perspective, there is the ‘body temperature’ theory. In the 1930s the psychologist Hudson Hoagland conducted a series of experiments which showed that body temperature causes different perceptions of time. Once, when his wife was ill with the flu and he was looking after her, he noticed that she complained that he’d been away for a long time even if he was only away for a few moments. With admirable scientific detachment, Hoagland tested her perception of time at different temperatures, and found that the higher her temperature, the more time seemed to slow down for her, and the longer she experienced each time period. Hoagland followed this up with several semi-sadistic experiments with students, which involved them enduring temperatures of up to 65C, and wearing heated helmets. These showed that raising a person’s body temperature can slow down their sense of time passing by up to 20%. And the important point here may be that children have a higher body temperature than adults, which may mean that time is ‘expanded’ to them. And in a similar way, our body temperature becomes gradually lower as we grow older, which could explain a gradual ‘constriction’ of time.

The Perceptual Theory

However, in my view, the speeding up of time we experience is mainly related to our perception of the world around us and of our experiences, and how this perception changes as we grow older.
The speed of time seems to be largely determined by how much information our minds absorb and process – the more information there is, the slower time goes. This connection was verified by the psychologist Robert Ornstein in the 1960s. In a series of experiments, Ornstein played tapes to volunteers with various kinds of sound information on them, such as simple clicking sounds and household noises. At the end he asked them to estimate how long they had listened to the tape for, and found that when there was more information on the tape (e.g. when there were double the number of clicking noises), the volunteers estimated the time period to be longer. He found that this applied to the complexity of the information too. When they were asked to examine different drawings and paintings, the participants with the most complex images estimated the time period to be longest.
I have tested this myself with a simple experiment with music. During a course, I asked the participants to listen to two pieces of music. One was a mad, frenetic piano concerto by Rachmaninov, with notes cascading at a rate of about 10 per second. The other was a piece of ambient music by Brian Eno, which floated gently and sedately across the room. We listened to the pieces for different periods of time and I asked the participants to estimate how much time had passed. If time perception is related to information, they should have experienced more time for the Rachmaninov piece. It contains a lot more information than the Brian Eno piece – many times more notes, tones and different instruments. All of this extra information should have stretched time.
And this is what the results showed. We listened to the Rachmaninov piece for 2 mins 20 secs, and the average estimate was 3 mins 25 secs. We listened to the Brian Eno piece for 2 minutes, while the average estimate was 2 mins 32 secs – still an over-estimate, but a lower one.
And if more information slows down time, perhaps part of the reason why time goes so slowly for children is because of the massive amount of ‘perceptual information’ that they take in from the world around them. Young children appear to live in a completely different world to adults – a much more intense, more real and more fascinating and beautiful one. As the psychologist Ernest Becker writes, in childhood we experience a “vision of the primary miraculousness of creation,” and our perceptions of the world are “suffused… in emotion and wonder.” This is one of the reasons why we often recall childhood as a time of bliss – because the world was a much more exciting and beautiful place to us then, and all our experiences were so intense. Children’s heightened perception means that they’re constantly taking in all kinds of details which pass us adults by – tiny cracks in windows, tiny insects crawling across the floor, patterns of sunlight on the carpet etc. And even the larger scale things which we can see as well seem to be more real to them, to be brighter, with more presence and is-ness. All of this information stretches out time for children.
However, as we get older, we lose this intensity of perception, and the world becomes a dreary and familiar place – so dreary and familiar that we stop paying attention to it. After all, why should you pay attention to the buildings or streets you pass on the way to work? You’ve seen these things thousands of times before, and they’re not beautiful or fascinating, they’re just… ordinary. As Becker describes it, we “repress” this intensity of vision. “By the time we leave childhood,” he writes, “we have closed it off, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw experience.”3 Or as Wordsworth puts it in his famous poem ‘Intimations of Immortality’, the childhood vision which enabled to all things “apparelled in celestial light,” begins to “fade into the light of common day.”4 And this is why time speeds up for us. As we become adults, we begin to ‘switch off’ to the wonder and is-ness of the world, gradually stop paying conscious attention to our surroundings and experience. As a result we take in less information, which means that time passes more quickly. Time is less ‘stretched’ with information.

Old and New Experience

And once we become adults, there is a process of progressive ‘familiarisation’ which continues throughout our lives. The longer we’re alive, the more familiar the world becomes, so that the amount of perceptual information we absorb decreases with every year, and time seems to pass faster every year.
There are two basic reasons why this happens. On the one hand, as we grow older there is progressively less newness in our lives. The life of a 20 year old woman is still full of new experiences. She’s still discovering new kinds of music, food, literature and other new hobbies and interests. She might be experiencing her first serious romantic relationship, learning to drive, flying and going abroad for the first time, discovering new towns or the countryside close to where she lives and so on. When she has these new experiences she is free of the de-sensitising mechanism; she perceives the ‘raw experience’ of the world and processes a large amount of perceptual information.
The same person at the age of 30 might still be having a few new experiences. She might be having a baby, going abroad to another country she’s never been to before, learning a new language, or starting a new job. But by the time she reaches 40 the world contains much less unfamiliarity. Her life probably consists mainly of the repetition of experiences which she’s had hundreds or thousands of times before. She works at the job she’s had for the last 20 years, goes home to the same house she’s had for the last ten, devotes her free time to the same hobbies and interests she discovered when she was 20, goes away at weekends to the same countryside, to the same foreign country every year, and so on. Because of this the de-sensitising mechanism has a greater hold over her. She’s hardly ever free of it, which means that she absorbs much less perceptual information.
But if this was the only reason why our perceptions become less fresh – and why time speeds up – as we get older, there wouldn’t be much difference between the time perceptions of a 40 and a 60 year old person. Most of us use up almost all of our ‘stock’ of new experience by the time we reach middle-age, and so there would be no real reason why time should appear to move faster for a person at these different ages. However, the second reason why our perceptions become less fresh is probably that as we get older all the experiences we’ve already had become more familiar to us. Not only do we have fewer new experiences, but the experiences which are already familiar to us become progressively less real. In William James’ words, “each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine.”5 As well as experiencing lots of new things, a woman at the age of 20 is still quite ‘fresh’ to the phenomenal world around her – but over the next 20 years, she’ll look at the same street scenes and the same sky and the same trees thousands of times, so that more and more of their realness will fade away.
Incidentally, this link between time and information can explain other aspects of time too. One of the ‘laws’ of psychological time which I set out in my book Making Time is that “time seems to slow down when we’re exposed to new environments and experiences.” This is because the unfamiliarity of new experiences allows us to take in much more information. Another of the laws is that “time goes quickly in states of absorption.” This is because in states of absorption our attention narrows to one small focus and we block out information from our surroundings. At the same time there is very little ‘cognitive information’ in our minds, since the concentration has quietened the normal ‘thought chatter’ of the mind. On the other hand, time goes slowly in states of boredom and discomfort because in these situations our attention isn’t occupied and a massive amount of thought-chatter flows through our minds, bringing a massive amount of cognitive information.

This was taken on 6/22/12. It was total luck how the two girls turned out.

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David Cardona 7 years, 4 months ago


7 years, 4 months ago Edited
Ninya 7 years, 4 months ago

awesome photo!

7 years, 4 months ago Edited
Glo B 7 years, 4 months ago

sure is! cool shot!

7 years, 4 months ago Edited
Christa 7 years, 5 months ago

This is a blast, it looks like a quantum lap :))
Besides, I did not say that I took your first shot of the former post to my fav.list, it's special.

7 years, 5 months ago Edited