Did 2020 seem to fly by? It might seem that way because you are getting older. The older we get, the more time seems to be fleeting compared to when we were younger. There is actually a scientific reason for time seemingly flying by as you get older. Each year seems to go by faster and faster as you get older and older and it has to do with our memories.
A reason for this odd phenomenon is that our early years are full of experiencing events happening to us for the very first time. First vacation, first date, first child. Our memories take more detailed accounts of these first-time events and they leave a lasting impression on us. Once we experience these life events more often they have less and less special meaning to them and our brain captures less and less details about these things. Our brain encodes new stimuli into memory and it takes longer to process the new and detail-rich information, so time feels like it is happening at a slower pace. So when you’re younger and experiencing all of these first-time events, you have more details to access and it seems like time stood still. Later in life your brain goes into storage-saving mode and records less of your life experiences, making time seem to fly by. The older we get, the more familiar we become with our surroundings and our daily routines. Our brains don’t have any new information to record.
Even in a smaller time span, you can see the effects of your memory taking more detailed snapshots of your life. If you take a two-week vacation in Aruba, the first days seem to go by slowly just as you want your vacation to progress. Then suddenly time is flying by and before you know it, your tropical hiatus is over. Another example is when you seem to have superhuman abilities and time seems to go in slow motion during a traumatic incident such as a car accident. Your brain has never experienced something like this so it is attempting to capture every facet and nuance of this unfamiliar circumstance.
Another reason why time seemed to go in slow motion when you were a kid was because you have no sense of time. Even smaller periods of time are a huge chunk of your life because you are young. For instance, one year to a 10-year-old is 10% of their life. That’s a large portion of their life compared to one year to a 40-year-old. So the older you get, a year or a month or a week is a smaller percentage of your cumulative life.
There was actually a study done on this phenomenon back in 2005. Psychologists Marc Wittmann and Sandra Lenhoff at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, surveyed 499 participants that ranged in age from 14 to 94-years-old. They were asked to rate the pace of time from “very slowly” to “very fast.” For shorter durations such as a week, a month, and a year, the participants’ perception of time did not appear to increase with age. Most of those surveyed felt that time flew by. However, for longer durations, such as a decade, older people perceived time to be moving faster compared to younger people. Participants older than 40-years-old felt that time elapsed slowly in their childhood but then accelerated steadily through their teenage years into early adulthood. One way to slow down the speed of life as you age is to experience new life events such as traveling.