April 18, 2023 – Time can feel like a roll of toilet paper – it unrolls faster and faster the closer you get to the end.
Psychologists and social scientists know this -- that time goes faster as we age -- but why is that so?
It's not just an academic inquiry. Our time perception has real effects on our mental health. The feeling of time going faster is linked to anxiety, while slowing time down – through mindfulness, for example – can help us feel less stressed and more relaxed.
The topic has drawn particular attention lately, thanks to the pandemic, when many people – more than 80%, according to a recent U.K. survey – felt time moved differently during lockdown.
But scientists are still unraveling the mysteries of time perception. Some say it’s related to how long we have lived – a 5-year-old feels a year is long because it makes up 20% of their life. Others point to changes in the brain. A 2019 research paper suggests our ability to process visual information slows with age; we perceive fewer mental images, and time feels like it’s speeding up.
Now a new study from Hungary adds another piece to the puzzle.
What Did the Researchers Do?
Researchers split up 138 people evenly into three age groups: 4 to 5, 9 to 10, and adults 18 or older. Each person watched two 1-minute videos. The videos looked and sounded similar but had a significant difference: One had more action (a police officer rescuing animals and arresting a thief), while the other was monotonous (prisoners escaping in a rowboat).
The scientists asked the people in the study two questions: "Which one was longer?" and "Can you show the durations with your arms?"
Their answers “revealed a striking age effect,” the study found. While the youngest group perceived the eventful video as longer, most 9- and 10-year-olds – and the vast majority of adults – identified the uneventful video as longer.
“Time is content for kids,” said lead study author Zoltan Nadasdy, PhD, a professor of psychology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary. “As we grow up, time becomes more of a currency. When people steal our time, we feel they are stealing money from us. That is very unfortunate.”
Why This Happens
The study provides evidence for a “switch” – occurring between ages 6 and 10 – in the way we estimate time. That’s the age when kids are taught to view time as “absolute,” Nadasdy said – that is, independent of our perception, always moving despite feeling fast or slow.
“In our culture, we think about time as an unstoppable unidirectional flow,” he said.
Time becomes “less subjective, more action- and event-independent,” the study said. We learn not to rely on our perception but rather to check time continually – by, say, looking at a clock or the sun’s position in the sky.
“We just sample [time] like stepping in a river,” Nadasdy said, “despite subjective experience making it feel like the river flows faster or slower sometimes.”
When we’re busy or distracted – or immersed in an engaging video – we may forget to track time. On the other hand, when we are watching a boring movie or waiting for someone who’s late, we check the clock constantly, wondering when the movie will end or the person will show up – and time slows.
For kids, “when things were interesting and stimulating, time felt like it slowed down – more interesting things were happening. As adults, we tend to experience the opposite. Time flies when we are having fun," said psychology professor Adam Anderson, PhD, of Cornell University, who was not involved in the study.
How Young Children Judge Time
The second question the scientists asked people in the study – about showing each video’s duration with their arms – highlighted the different ways kids and adults conceptualize time.
Among the youngest kids, half used vertical gestures and half horizontal. By contrast, 85% of the 9- and 10-year-olds, and 90% of adults, favored horizontal arm expressions – reflecting the mental image of time as a straight line moving left to right.
“Adults represented time as length, like distance, experiencing time as ‘longer’ or ‘shorter,’” Anderson said. “Children tended to view time as a magnitude, more like brightness or loudness.”
One thing that surprised Nadasdy: No one thought the two videos were equal in length. “Everyone felt confident that one or the other was longer.”
“Why this is so interesting is that cognitive functions are thought to get ‘better’ as our brain develops," said Anderson. But that’s not what this study showed. “From a neurodiversity perspective, adults are not more able to make judgments of time” – they judge time differently, not better.
Anderson was the lead author of another recent study, published in Psychophysiology, that found our perception of time may be linked with the length of our heartbeats. People in this study, who were fitted with electrocardiograms and asked to listen to a brief audio tone, perceived the tone as longer after a longer heartbeat, and shorter after a shorter heartbeat. The heart may play a role in our sense of time passing, the researchers found.
So how can you slow time and savor it more like you did as a kid? Try these tips.
Take time to reflect on joyful experiences.
This helps you integrate them into your personal timeline, making them lasting memories and giving you a sense of a long, fulfilled life, Nadasdy said.
Listen to what’s happening in your friends’ and family’s lives. “Those lives and yours are parallel,” said Nadasdy. “You can live parallel lives by simply paying attention to others and sharing their point of view. It multiplies your experience and multiplies your life.”
View the world the way a 4-year-old would.
Attention plays a key role in how we process time. When we’re distracted, time speeds up. When we’re present and engaged, it slows down. To help you focus on the here and now, try thinking like a 4-year-old – or, as Nadasdy said, "experience the world around you like you need to tell someone at the end of the day exactly what you experienced."
Focus on your breathing.
Start a stopwatch and close your eyes, focusing on your breathing for what you think is a minute. Open your eyes to see how accurate your time estimation was.
“This can give you a sense of how much your experience of your body is related to your experience of time,” Anderson said. “It will help teach you to enjoy the pure experience of time.”
Pay attention to your heart.
This one is hard for most people: Let a stopwatch run for a minute, and focus on counting each heartbeat you can feel. Check your accuracy with a heart rate monitor on a smartwatch or an app.
“When you start this practice, you might only feel a few heartbeats,” Anderson said, but you’ll improve with practice. “Our and others’ research shows that heartbeats guide our experience of time. By attending to our hearts, we can take control of our sense of time, slowing it down.”
Slow your heart rate.
You can also “help reset how your brain and heart experience time” by using slow breathing to slow your heart rate, said Anderson. Breathe in for 4 seconds, and out for 6 seconds; repeat that a few times. Doing so will signal the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body, slowing the heart.
“We show that slow heart rates – that is, a longer duration between heartbeats – dilates time, slowing it down," Anderson said.