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- Many people say that time seems to speed up as they get older.
- There are a few theories for this, but a new paper suggests it could be down to a psychological habit called “chunking.”
- By bundling together similar experiences we could be perceiving our lives as moving by quicker.
- The researchers suggest we try and look for the unique moments in life to try and stop us lumping things together this way.
Another new year, another opportunity to say: “Where did the last 12 months go?”
It’s very common to hear people say that it feels like time is slipping away faster and faster as they get older. Many of us will be guilty of making the remarks, because sometimes it does feel like a year can be gone in a flash.
As for why it happens, there have been a few theories over the years. One is that it’s because when we are younger, a year makes up a larger percentage of our lives. For example, at four years old, one year will be 25% of your entire life, so it might feel like longer. As you get older, this percentage gets smaller and smaller.
Another possibility is that our biological clocks slow down as we age. Or it could simply be because we pay less attention to time slipping away when we are children.
We ‘chunk’ similar memories together
Philosopher Douglas R. Hofstadter came up with the idea of “chunking” as a way to describe the feeling of time getting faster. He proposed it is because over time we tend to collect our memories into bigger chunks.
For example, a young child going for a walk with their parents may encounter many new experiences. The weather might be different, or they might meet a dog, make a friend in the play area, or smell a new flower. These will all be individual experiences to the child, whereas the adult will probably lump that experience together with other walks in the park in their memories.
Thus, the parents may perceive time as going quicker, as they have fewer experiences of the day.
This makes sense if we gauge time by the amount of memorable events that happen to us. When we are older, our lives might be more repetitive as we fill them up with school runs, work, and making dinner. While at school, there would probably be more social events, dances, sports matches, and milestones like first kisses, heartbreaks, and getting married.
Having so much packed into a relatively short time could give the impression that earlier days were longer, when in fact events may have happened in the same period of time.
Time tends to move faster when we look back at longer periods
To test this theory, researcher Mark Landau at the University of Kansas and his team recruited 324 people for three studies to see whether people who “chunked” their memories together perceived time as moving faster.
In the first experiment, 107 participants were asked to write about the events over the past year of their lives and how they were similar to experiences in previous years. This was the chunking group. The non-chunking group were asked to write about how events could have turned out differently. Those who “chunked” the past year perceived time as passing more quickly.
The second experiment asked 115 undergraduate participants to reflect on the time they spent doing different things in either the past day or the past year. Those who chunked the past year reported feeling like time had gone faster than the other group.
The third group of people, 105 adults, did a similar test with pie charts to illustrate how they had spent the past year or past day. Like the previous two experiments, those who looked at the whole year appeared to experience time moving faster.
Overall, we may look back on our lives and bundle together years’ worth of experiences, like “family time,” “work,” “social events,” and “holidays.”
“Perceiving life as rapidly slipping away is psychologically harmful: unpleasant, demotivating, and possibly even hostile to the sense that life is meaningful,” the authors of the study wrote.
As bleak as this might seem, the researchers conclude that if this is the reason for time accelerating, then it could be counteracted. Specifically, they suggest people “live in the moment” or try and appreciate the special moments as truly unique.
Thinking about how one experience is different to anything else may stop us lumping many things together, and appreciate the smaller, seemingly less significant, moments.