Does time fly when you grow older?
- Apparently, everyone feels that time moves faster when you are older
- So how do we avoid the vertigo, shock and nausea of time passing?
All right, I am going to just say it. I didn’t think we would make it through a full term of this government and get to a fresh round of elections. Partly, it was less than robust faith in this government’s belief in the electoral process. Partly, it was that my imagination quailed before going through five years of a government that represented everything I disliked. But here we are, mere weeks away from elections. Time apparently flies even when you are not having fun.
To get through the painful boredom of many years of education that dominated my childhood and teen years, I needed a million distractions. I needed everything from bouts of bad romance to running a weekly paper with friends to reading the Arabian Nights in Malayalam to making paper dolls. I needed all of it or my head would have exploded from sheer tedium. Time dragged under the dictatorship of adults. But at some point I became an adult, and, a little later, time got a glucose shot and started running a 5k.
It isn’t just me though. Apparently, everyone feels that time moves faster when you are older. Scientific studies have proven that when you are older, you do experience longer periods of time, such as a decade, as having moved faster. This is in retrospect, of course. And doesn’t apply to how you experience shorter periods of time. It isn’t that if you stick me in a classroom now, I will feel the hour whiz by. I will still need to doodle the same flowers I have been doodling since 1995. I will still worry about the right amount of class participation that takes you past Caricature Douchey Student but stops well before Caricature Teacher’s Pet. I will still feel the shades of the prison-house begin to close on me.
This theory about time perception is based on studies that have found a difference in how older and younger people experienced time as it is happening. In the late 1990s, Peter Mangan, an American psychologist, asked volunteers to estimate a 3-minute period by counting seconds. Older people took longer than the young volunteers to get to what they thought was 3 minutes. Mangan concluded that the brain’s internal clock runs slower in older people, leading to their impression that life is moving faster.
Then there is what new technology does to the experience of time. While watching Captain Marvel recently, the audience laughed when Vers, who comes to Earth from a more technologically advanced place, is puzzled by file buffering. Many of us have forgotten the exact tedium of the loading file—something we once went through dozens of times a day—and would find it unbearably today. And that play on our memory of the relatively recent past is what the movie banked on for laughs. But after I left the movie, I had a more disorienting experience of time. I realized Captain Marvel was the second-last in a 22-film series that began in 2008 with Iron Man. I remember the exact snide things I said to my boyish companions while watching Iron Man, where we watched it, and how we had recently made peace with the caramel-cheese combo popcorn bucket. It was over a decade ago. A decade.
The realization that the arrival of Tony Stark is a significant milestone makes me dizzy. This is the kind of thing that led to psychologist Norman Bradburn arguing that human beings use the clarity of a memory to figure how recent an event was. If a memory is fuzzy, we assume it was in “the olden days", as Peppa Pig likes to say (you can avoid the wildly popular cartoon character Peppa Pig only if you do not know anyone below the age of 8). If it is clear, as the memory of my irritation when first encountering Pepper Potts (less well-written than Peppa Pig), then you assume it happened recently.
So how do we avoid the vertigo, shock and nausea of time passing? Science has many ideas about this, though rather fewer ideas than science fiction. The most appealing insight is that we can experience time more enjoyably by introducing newness in our daily routines. Which is why, famously, holidays seem to zoom past, but feel pleasurably long when you look back. In retrospect, our measuring of time is guided by the many, many new memories we created while on holiday, says psychologist Claudia Hammond. In an average fortnight, we collect anywhere between six-nine new memories, as many as we do on a single vacation day. We can’t be on holiday all the time, but we can exploit what psychologists call the “reminiscence bump" through newness. We can aim to pack in new experiences and memories in our ordinary weeks the way we do on holidays.
Our 20s are so well-remembered because we naturally experience so many new things then. To make the slippery, wriggly present sharper, you don’t have to quit your job and move to the hills. Go to lunch with a colleague you don’t know well. Go see the famous monument in your town you always send your visiting relatives to. Vote for the first time in your adult life. Make memories this week to look back at as the next five years fly by. Time will then slow down, not like a loading file but like a summer holiday.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.