How does the perception of time work

output 2 2011 / Aging society (s)

Was that really ten years ago? The change in the perception of time over the life span

The older we get, the faster time seems to go by. Is that because the "internal clock" becomes slower and slower in the course of our lives? Is our memory getting worse and worse for the events from which we reconstruct the past lifetime? Or do we just not want time to pass because the end of our life is getting closer and closer? All of this probably plays a role, but most importantly, we develop more and more routines that speed up our subjective lifetimes. We discuss why this can also have its advantages.

Amazed - and often in disbelief - many people ask themselves again and again where the previous years of life have gone: Have we actually been married for 30 years? Is my child really an adult? Has it been 10 years since we last met? In contrast, the summers in our childhood or the period of our growing up seem to have lasted forever. The older we get, the faster time seems to go by. What we know from a wonderful holiday that seems to last a long time at the beginning, but then, in retrospect, has passed very quickly, also seems to happen to the rest of our lives. This finding is often frightening, especially since most people have many plans, unfulfilled wishes that they hope to be able to implement in the future. The faster the time passes subjectively, the more threatened the implementation of these wishes appears. The perception of how much time we have left in life has a decisive influence on which goals we pursue, which decisions we make and even which friendships we keep and which we do not pursue (Lang & Carstensen, 2002). If we have the impression that we still have an infinite amount of time in life, the goals we pursue serve more to acquire knowledge; If, on the other hand, the remaining lifetime seems very limited to us, we strive for another goal - the regulation of our emotions (Carstensen, Isaacowitz & Charles, 1999). Then we are less likely to tolerate unpleasant living conditions, which, if the lifetime seems indefinitely long, we are more likely to accept in favor of a hoped-for future benefit. The same applies to the choice of people with whom we surround ourselves. We become more choosy and don't want to waste our time (Carstensen et al., 1999). For more than a century, the phenomenon of the acceleration of time over the course of life has been described and studied by philosophers, writers and scientists. However, the question of how this impression of an ever faster passing time is created and, above all, how one should evaluate this impression, has not been finally clarified. In the present article, we will examine the previous scientific findings on the topic in order to answer the question of the cause of the phenomenon. We will also discuss ways to counteract the subjective acceleration of time. In conclusion, we will argue that the phenomenon may not be as badly rated as we often assume.

A well-known phenomenon: the subjectively faster and faster life time

Most people are familiar with the phenomenon of ever faster passing time; However, so far there is little scientifically sound evidence on this, such as the studies by Wittmann and Lehnhoff (2005) and Friedman and Janssen (2010). In these cross-sectional studies, a total of over 2,000 people from four different countries between the ages of 14 and 94 were asked how quickly different lifetimes passed for them. When respondents were asked about the past ten years, there were significant differences between younger and older people. The perceived speed of the past ten years was considerably faster for people aged 60 and over than for people up to 30 years of age. Both studies showed correlations of 0.21 to 0.30 between age and the assessment of how quickly the last ten years had passed. These studies confirm the existence of the frequently described phenomenon of accelerating lifetime. If you look for explanations for this phenomenon in the literature, you will find different answers. We describe the five most important ones below.

Possible explanations for the accelerated perception of time in the life course

1. The ratio of the last ten years to the previous lifetime

One explanation for the accelerated perception of time is that the previous lifetime is used as a reference criterion for a period of time to be assessed (e.g. the last 10 years) (Lemlich, 1975). That is, when I'm 15 years old, 10 years is very long by comparison. But if I'm already 80 years old, then 10 years is, in relative terms, a rather short period of time. Since the ratio of the last 10 years to the total previous lifetime is increasing, the time to be assessed should appear to be shorter and shorter the older you get, and thus as passing faster and faster. With this logically plausible explanation, however, it remains unclear whether our perception of time actually works in this way. If one were to always use the previous lifetime as a comparison criterion, it would not be possible to explain why certain periods of time appear to us to be shorter and others to be longer, depending on what we are currently experiencing and regardless of how old we are.

2. The fear of the end of life

Another possible explanation concerns our emotionally tinted attitude towards time. Maybe we just don't want life to go by because we're afraid we haven't seen everything yet, haven't used our time well enough, or because we're afraid of death - all the more so the older we get. Everyone knows the phenomenon of time, which drags on endlessly when you are waiting for someone, or seems to pass very quickly when you are experiencing something beautiful, just as if time refuses to do exactly what we want. Maybe childhood is just boring and should pass as quickly as possible in the eyes of the children in order to finally be an adult? And maybe, on the contrary, in adulthood there is too much to do in too limited a time that, under this time pressure, we don't want time to pass? But why should time always be exactly the opposite of what we want? To answer this question, it was investigated whether there is a connection between the perceived speed of life and the fear of death experienced, but no meaningful correlation was found (Joubert, 1983).

3. The speed of the “internal clock” and how closely we pay attention to it

If you look at models that explain how human time perception works in general, you often find the idea of ​​a clock (an "internal clock") as the basis for time estimation. The 'Attentional Gate Model' (Figure 1) by Zakay and Block (1997) provides in addition to this clock generator, which outputs a different number of clocks per unit of time, depending on how fast the internal clock is, another factor that influences how long we go Estimate a certain period of time: the “attention gate”. Our attention, which we direct to the passage of time, determines how many bars of the internal clock we perceive, i.e. how many bars can pass the attention gate. If we pay close attention to the time, for example because we are waiting for someone, we register every single beat of the internal clock, and the time will therefore seem longer to us, compared to when we are distracted and therefore beats are lost. An explanation for the ever faster passing time of life could now consist of two components: On the one hand, our perception of time could be controlled by an internal clock that slows down as life progresses. With increasing age, this internal clock would produce fewer and fewer clocks in the same objective time span and therefore create the impression of an ever shorter duration of actually the same time span. On the other hand, it could theoretically be that with advancing age we (can) concentrate more and more on the time and thus more and more bars are lost in the same time interval. This would mean that the worse the cognitive processes such as attention and memory performance become in old age, the faster time seems to pass by subjectively. There is a lot of research on how the time estimates of younger and older people differ, mostly in the seconds and minutes range. However, the findings are inconsistent. A meta-analysis by Block, Zakay, and Hancock (1998) showed increased variability in the time estimates of older people. So far, however, no evidence has been provided that the internal clock ticks more and more slowly with increasing age or that time-relevant attention performance deteriorates with age.

4. The number of remembered experiences

Clock models and the aforementioned studies on time estimation relate to what is known as prospective time perception. This means that the test participants know in advance that they should estimate the time later. However, when we think in the course of our lives about how quickly the last 10 years have passed, it is always a retrospective perception of time that we have to reconstruct from memory, i.e. without having previously thought about the fact that we should estimate the time at some point . How does this retrospective time estimate work? The 'Contextual Change Model' by Block (1989) says that the reconstruction of the duration of a period is based on the number of different remembered events in this period. The more happens in a period of time, and the more we remember about it, the longer its duration will seem to us in retrospect. Assuming now that our memory performance deteriorates with age, one would expect that we remember fewer events and therefore the time should appear to us ever shorter. While there is evidence that the structure of our memory changes over the lifespan (e.g. Johnson, Logie & Brockmole, 2010), the relationship between these changes and the perception of time is currently unclear.