Uncle Dennis Was Right

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I pondered the phenomenon. Why do we perceive time to pass more quickly as we age?
I pondered the phenomenon. Why do we perceive time to pass more quickly as we age?

Summer has always been a special time for me. During my childhood and adolescence, my summers were spent in northern New Jersey on Upper Greenwood Lake. It was a wonderful summer community, with opportunities for water skiing, fishing, swimming — just about any outdoor lake activity a kid could want!

One of the highlights of these idyllic summers was the annual Fourth of July party at my best friend's home, which included an annual ritual. In his strong Brooklyn accent, my friend's Uncle Dennis would declare, “Fourth of July means the summer's over!” Us kids would just laugh and think, “What is he talking about? This is just the beginning.  We have the whole summer ahead of us!”

But over time, I began to understand what Uncle Dennis meant. And I started believing it. When the Fourth of July arrives, it seems as if a starting gun has gone off and time begins to race. I pondered the phenomenon. Why do we perceive time to pass more quickly as we age?

There are a lot of theories, and in fact, a Brazilian study actually looked into our changing perception of time. The researchers took 233 people, ages 15 to 89, and had them close their eyes and count to 120 and then note how long they thought it had taken them to count.  Interestingly enough, the entire group thought that it had taken them less time to count to 120 than it actually had — that time had sped up.  However, for the oldest participants, time seemed to pass 25% more quickly than it did for the youngest participants.

Why would this be? Some of the researchers speculated that age-related changes in brain chemistry that are involved in concentration and memory could account for the discrepancy between actual time and perceived time. Concentration and memory are important for estimating passing of time. In fact, dopamine levels, a key factor in concentration, do change as we age.

Other researchers in the study believed that the knowledge and experience we gather over time affect our ability to estimate time. The first-time experiences of our adolescence and early adulthood generally are intense and make a profound impression; we tend to remember this period vividly. There's even a name for it: the “Nostalgia Period.” It causes a reminiscence bump. It's after we pass though the Nostalgia Period that time seems to really pick up the pace.

There may also be a mathematical explanation.  As we age, each particular year becomes a smaller percentage of all the years we've been alive.  For example, if you're 4 years old and know a friend for 1 year, it is as if you've always known him or her. But if you're 40 years old and know someone for 1 year, it seems like a relatively new relationship. For the 4 year old, his friendship has spanned 25% of his life. But for the 40 year old, his friendship has lasted just 2.5% of his life.

I suspect that there are many explanations for this acceleration of time as we age.  But whatever shoots off that starting gun, Uncle Dennis was right: We only just celebrated the Fourth of July, or so it seems, and now it's over and done — and so is summer.


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