Why Life Seems to Speed Up as We Age


I remember when I was a kid waiting an hour for my favorite TV show to come on, which was Sharon, Lois & Bram. That felt like eternity, but as I’ve gotten older, everything seems to have sped up. Time is going much faster. That’s something virtually everyone agrees upon. “Yeah, I feel like- I feel like it does.” “Oh man, so much.” “Each year sort of gets faster and faster.” But why is this? Is it just an illusion or are there good scientific reasons why time appears to go faster as we get older? Well, I’m working with the National Geographic Channel’s Brain Games, a show that explores the inner workings of the human mind through experiments and interactive games to test out some theories about why this actually occurs. There is a reasonable sounding argument that says each year goes faster because it makes up a smaller fraction of your entire life. “Let’s say I was only 20. One year is only 1/20th of my age. But when I’m 67, one year is 1/67th of my age.” This graph shows one year as a percentage of your life at each age. But what I find weird about this is if you add up the area underneath the curve, you’ll find that you’ve already lived half of the total by age 6. So, I really don’t think this is how our brains perceive time. You really think that, like, a day now is- “Of course not.” [laughter] I think there are better reasons why time appears to speed up as we get older. So I’ve come to Venice Beach to find two groups of people: The older and younger to see if their perceptions of time differ. So what I want to do is I want to set my timer going and without counting, you tell me when you think a minute is up. “Let’s go.” Start. “Okay.” Everywhere around the world, when this experiment is performed, older people typically overestimate while younger people measure it quite accurately. “Alright, probably stop?” “Yep.” Wooo, one minute, two seconds. A minute and two seconds. A minute and five. As we get older, the rate at which our neurons fire, or our neuron conduction velocity, it decreases. And you can think of this firing rate a little bit like an internal clock. And so, if our internal clock is slowing down, that would make everything else, external time, seem to be speeding up. “I’m going to tell you the time.” Now? “Now.” “One minute.” That’s it? That was one minute? “One minute.” Minute, seventeen seconds. “Not bad, right?” Not bad. “I thought I’d be a lot closer actually, but I guess I wasn’t.” Do you want to know what it really was? One minute forty seven. “No way, it was almost two minutes? It was actually almost two minutes.” “It really is amazing how fast time flies by, it really is.” Our sense of time, or chronoception, is not like one of the standard five senses. It has no specialized receptor cells and it does not appear to be localized in just one part of the brain. Perhaps this suggests that it’s not one coherent thing at all. But it does seem that our perception of time is very fundamental. Studies of rats have shown that even with their neocortex removed – that is, the higher order thinking part of their brains- They are still able to learn how to time forty seconds accurately. That’s quite remarkable, and it suggests our sense of time evolved early and is one of the fundamental functions of the brain. But that doesn’t mean out brains always represent time faithfully. For example, have you noticed that really good movies seem to go by much faster than they actually are? Or do you notice that your vacations fly by? There are good reasons for this. When we’re focused on something, we don’t notice that time is passing and that makes them feel in the moment shorter than they actually are. At its best, this results in a mental state called “flow”. This can happen when playing sports or video games or artists when they’re fully engrossed in their work or people meditating. So I would argue another reason time speeds up as we age is because we are more often engrossed in what we’re doing. Another thing that appears to make time speed up is repetition. I’m going to show you a series of images and I want you to consider how long each one appears on the screen. Are you ready? Go. So which one appeared to last the longest? If you’re like most people, you’d probably say the dog. But all of those images actually appeared on screen fore the same length of time. The dog seemed longer because it was novel and therefore, your brain had to invest more energy in processing it. What’s remarkable is that our sense of how long something is – or subjective duration- It correlates highly with how much energy we’re using in our brains. Now, if you study how much energy people use in their brains over the course of their lifetime, you’ll find that it peaks around age five. If you think about it, this kind of makes sense because when you’re a kid, almost everything is novel to you. And therefore, your brain needs to use more energy, fully 66% of your resting energy intake. That’s used by the brain because of all the novel experiences and that must, at least in part, explain why time appears to go more slowly. So, what can we do to slow time down? Well, studies have shown that being afraid increases our perception of time. When arachnophobes were forced to stare at spiders for 45 seconds – Yes, this is a real experiment – Those arachnophobes judged that experience as lasting much longer than 45 seconds, as you would kind of expect. Plus, experiments involving skydivers or people falling showed that they judged their experience to last much longer than it actually is. Another time when time appears to pass slowly is when you’re bored. “You know, when you’re waiting and waiting, that’s all you think about, so it seems like time drags forever.” Since there is so little to focus on, you are acutely aware of just how much time is passing, and so these boring moments drag on and on. So, if you really want to slow down your experience of time, you could scare yourself, take up extreme sports, get into accidents and intersperse all of that with periods of boredom. But this viewpoint ignores one important fact, which is that we don’t experience time as just one thing. We think about time as it passe, but also as it has passed before, when we remember it. And those two ways of looking at time, they don’t align. So for example, holidays, they feel like they go by really fast, but when you think back upon them, they last a long time. That’s because you had a lot of novel experiences and your brain formed a lot of memories. And it judges the duration of that vacation by the number of memories that were formed. All that novelty means lots of memories means it feels like it took a long time, but in the moment, it felt fast. This is the paradox, the great paradox, of our perception of time. If you want time to go slowly, there are a lot of things you can expose yourself to that will slow time down, but they won’t necessarily be pleasant. So maybe the happiest life and the longest remembered life is one where time really seems to fly. It’s like Einstein said, “Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it’ll feel like an hour. But sit next to a pretty girl for an hour and it’ll feel like a minute.” So, what would you like your life to feel like? I want to thank the National Geographic Channel for sponsoring this episode of Veritasium. And if you want to introduce more novelty into your life, than you should check out their series, “Brain Games” The new season begins February 14th at 9/8 Central. And this season, they have an episode about all of your senses, including your sense of time, chronoception. So if you want to find out more, than check out the link to their website in the description. And thank you for watching. Did that feel like that lasted long?

100 thoughts on “Why Life Seems to Speed Up as We Age”

  1. everything that one does for the first time your brain is so curious it stares every detail. go back along that route and you'll find ti appears much shorter, because the brain skips from absorbing what it already has in store. rewire your brain, and you'll find it lengthens time — change career at seventy and check — you'll wish for a virgin brain in your youth, because it appears you are just not getting anywhere, so much time is consumed.

  2. Young people were actually smarter because they started counting to 60 when they were asked to estimate how long 1 minutes does last! Those older people did not ! 😀

  3. I hated being a kid it was so annoying you had to go to school can't drink or smoke it's hell you wake up go to school and get the useless knowledge that you will never need but when you go to work you get paid you actually need money unlike "knowledge" like when the hell will I use history huh? Or music I mean yeah maybe you need maths and some other lessons but most of them useless

  4. Very interesting. Makes me sad how quick time passes. When I listen too a new song, it truly does feel longer than it is. It’s one of the reasons I don’t mind a situation of being in boring situation, time goes slow and I use that time to think. I find that since I don’t want time to go to fast, new experiences are great as I perceive them as lasting longer. I love the quote about doing something each day that scares you. I don’t do something daily, but often I do when I have the opportunity. Great video!

  5. When I was little I was so excited for holidays because the days in between seemed boring to me. Now everything seems equal.

  6. It's pretty simple. For a 5-year-old, one year = 1/5 of a lifetime. For a 50-year-old, 1 year = 1/50 of a lifetime. We can only measure our years from own own perspective of what one lifetime equals. And that frame of reference keeps getting larger — so time continues to become a smaller and smaller fraction.

  7. The thing with the car and the dog was weird for me, I tend to process those as like musical notes, just a straight tone. I don’t remember how much it was but it was like G G G C G and that’s how I heard the tone, it’s very strange to me for some reason

  8. In a nutshell; percentage change is the primary driver for the perceived "acceleration" of time: Aging another year to a 10 year old, is a whole 10% older (leeks like more, because no remembers much from their first 3 years). Aging another year to a 50 year old, is only 2% older.

    Pick you own numbers; but the principle is the same. Also, the older you get, the less time you have left…

  9. I don't know what it says about me, but I swear, in that experiment the car was on the screen significantly longer than the dog.

  10. I remember when a YouTube video said “5 years ago”, it was probably only posted in 2008.
    But now when a YouTube video says: “5 years ago”, it means that it was posted in 2015…

  11. Time perception depends on your hearth beat!

    When you are younger or you are scared or you are stressed or you are doing sports, then your heart beat is faster and therefore time is passing slowly. When you are older or laying relaxed in your couch, the your hearth rate is slower and time passes much faster. Thats it!

  12. No, it's because as we get older, we don't seem to spend as much time on inane things, we learn to not waste time, and only worry about the stuff that really matters. We don't waste our time on boring, petty, pointless things.
    Just my opinion.

  13. I don't know if it was said already, but the quote is NOT from Einstein actually. Like a lot of quotes from a random guy, it's associate with someone famous because it feels like it connect with that person ideas (in that case, it's suppose to illustrate relativity).

  14. MY THEORY: autopilot!!! Once a task is learned, the brain and body finds ways to do it more efficiently. By the time you are 80 years old your entire life is on autopilot. My grandmother still works full time at 77 but gets up everyday at the same time, drinks the same coffee, eats the same eggs, and smokes the same cigarettes. lol. All you gotta do is keep moving and you will live for sooo long!

  15. When You have pane in your body, tame is going slowly which is with most people >40 (Im 50+). And is not so exiting live…Why then really is going faster for me? Maybe nawing the end is closer end closer give this sence?

  16. Also, if you have to wait for things that you want then time seems slow, but if you get what you want quickly then time seems quick.

  17. Anyone else stop watching when he said half of the average life is age 6?

    Spoiler alert
    I'm 24… 4x past his "graph" and I don't plan on spending another second on this video

  18. At the age of ten, one year is one tenth of your total experience. At the age of 60, one year is 1/60 of your total experience. It actually is less.

  19. i want to enjoy my childhood. but i get so bored in school i just want to get to the end of the week. most of your childhood will revolve around school and less free time. so if most of your time is at school, enjoy it, because school = childhood.

    not that school is even enjoyable, heck no. but enjoy the other things like your friends, hobbies, work, etc. even if you dont get alot of free time

  20. I think it's just because as you get older, into your late teens and after, you become so busy with new responsibilities that you don't have the time to worry about the time. You get up, and do so many things day by day. When you're young in middle school and earlier, everything is sort of set up for you. Mom takes you to soccer practice at 4:00. Go to school at 9:00am. When you make your own decisions as you get older, you have to make your own time management. (Which actually takes a lot of time in itself). So you're so busy either working, or worrying about how little time you really have. . . To the point where it's already the end of the day, and reset to do it all over again in the morning.

  21. I've observed a few things-
    1. Time seems to pass quickly when you are doing something you love or when you are enjoying.
    2. Every second feels like an an eternity when you are in a problem, when you are not enjoying or when you are bored
    3. When something really bad is happening, time seems to get rlly slow. Our eyes act like a camera and records every little detail
    4. When you got a lot of stuff to do, or when you are busy, time seems to pass quickly
    I kinda think its all about perception…

  22. Whenever I do the min thingy I only get 30 seconds.. I'm not young. Something must be wrong with me. I thought I was supposed to have longer time..

  23. When I used to do factory work we had a rule Never ask the time never tell the time. Because once you know the time it goes slower. When you're just working not knowing the time The time goes by like nothing.

  24. Life time is like a roll of toilet paper as you get towards the end of the roll it spins faster and faster to get the same amount of paper

  25. Time perception is faster when you are younger and slower when you are older.
    It is just like when you need to record a video in slow motion. It has slower movement but the frames per second is in fact faster.
    As you live every hour the relation between the next hour is smaller than the last hour past. Smaller relation means slower since it is smaller result.
    It is the same to say 80 mph is faster than 50 mph.

  26. I imagine hunter-gatherers, who were continually encountering new experiences, must have lived what felt like very long lives, even if they generally died at 60 or 70 or whatever.

  27. So how can we alter our brain circuitry to change the perception of time? It would drastically slow down our lives! We would feel like we are living to 500 years old in relative terms! Amazing!

  28. It's for the same reason that something can be your favorite food but if you eat it all the time you become numb to it and won't be as impressed. As your mind becomes more conditioned to the world around you, you aren't as blown away and therefore don't seem to take the time to "smell the roses" as it were.

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