Time Flies

We've all heard the expression, "time flies" - and as we get older, it seems to speed up even more! For children, the summer holidays go on forever and each Christmas is a lifetime away, but for older people, the year seems to fly by in a flash, with time apparently passing even more quickly every year.

So does time move faster as you get older, or is it all in our imagination? Scientists have studied the concept and thanks to physics, they have come up with a theory on why time really does seem to fly.

© Nikki Zalewski / Adobe Stock

Theory of time

When you were a kid, growing up would seem to take forever, but as you hit adulthood, everything appears to speed up. Research has shown this concept  (described as one of the "biggest mysteries of the experience of time") might have an explanation after all.

The journal, European Review, has published the results of a new scientific study, which claims to have discovered the reason why time flies when you're an adult. It's the same law of physics that is responsible for the detailed memories we often have of our childhood.

According to research by Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University in the United States, the phenomena occur because it takes us longer to obtain images and process them in our brain as we age. He says people are often amazed by how much they remember from those long days of our youth.

Childhood memories, the faces of people we have met, toys, games and experiences from long ago seem imprinted in our mind, yet in later adulthood, it can sometimes be hard to remember what we had for dinner two days ago!

Brain processing speed

Bejan says it's nothing to do with our youthful experiences being more meaningful or deeper, rather it's because they were being processed rapidly - something we were capable of as children.

He says his research has pinpointed the link between the slower processing of images and time apparently going faster. As we age, we process new information in real-time, while as children, we could process it in what he describes as "lightning speed". This has the effect of making time appear to go at different speeds.

Our brain senses time changing in relation to the perceived images changing. This causes the present to feel different from the past. It's not a case of going by the clock - it happens because our mind's way of viewing images has changed.

In our youth, the days seemed to last longer because a child's mind receives and processes many more images during one day, compared with a person's mind in old age.

New experiences

Research published in the journal, Scientific American, backs up this theory, stating that adults have less new experiences than kids, contributing to the feeling that time is moving faster. Every childhood experience is new, bringing with it a myriad of feelings that your brain is continually processing. These are all stored in its memory banks.

Everything from grasping new concepts, learning to read at school, or learning to drive in our teens, makes it feel like time is moving slowly, but when the number of new experiences is reduced as we get older, there are far fewer unfamiliar moments for our mind to process.

According to post-doctoral researcher James Broadway, of the University of California's department of psychological and brain sciences, this leads to our early years being "over-represented" in our memory, giving us the impression, on reflection, that they have lasted longer.

Nature's milestones

For people in the UK and other places where there are four distinct seasons, although time may appear to move faster as we age, the passing of the seasons gives us something on which to base our concept of time, keeping it in proportion.

Research suggests that people who live in countries where the climate is quite similar all year round may feel time is passing even faster. If everything is the same all the time, the brain isn't processing any new events, such as the leaves falling in autumn, the first snowfall of winter, or the first blooms of spring – these sorts of things can help to slow down our concept of time a little.

Keep your brain active!

According to scientists, the good news is that if you can keep your brain active by learning new things all the time, no matter how old you are, time will appear to slow down again.

However quickly or slowly time seems to pass, there will always be 365 days in a year, so it's pretty amazing that we have the power to create our own reality, to a degree, by providing our brain with new experiences.

Even if you left school years ago, there's nothing to stop you from giving your mind a new adventure, such as learning a new language, or travelling to a new place for a break. Activities such as starting a night class - even if it's a leisure course and not one with an exam at the end - can keep your brain active. So if you're putting off doing the things you fancy, but keep feeling like time is flying by, do something about it!

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