tick, tick, tick…

Sapolsky’s final chapter Open Season got me thinking about why we remember more when we’re younger or at least why we have these ultra vivid memories of for instance, that Christmas that Santa left a shiny pink Barbie bike next to the twinkling evergreen, or that time that those mischievous boy neighbors thought that playing cops and robbers and tying you up and tossing you in that black fort and locking you in to “rot for being bad” was a good idea… yeah, that really happened and I freaked out and threatened to “BLOW their house down!!” After starting to kick from the inside, they finally realized that I was fully capable of destroying their handy craftsmanship…suckersss!!

Ok so ever wonder why time seems to tick by faster as we get older?

Well listen to this NPR segment! NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich interviews Warren Meck, a Professor in Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, about this crazy phenomenon: as we age, our birthdays, school years, holidays, and the events that come and go seem to fleet by us faster and faster. So by the time we hit our 40s or 50s,  we’ll have this sense and feeling that the clock is ticking much faster than we are.

Here’s a brief explanation of what has been theorized:

KRULWICH: But why? Why does time move faster as we get older?

Prof. MECK: That’s an interesting question.

KRULWICH: And the answer is, nobody knows. There are theories, of course, from psychologists, from neuroscientists who’ve been doing experiments. For example, one thought is maybe as we age, something changes in our brains so we lose the ability to measure time.

Prof. MECK: I’m thinking here of a clock idea – that each of us have a clock in our brain, and that does slow down over time.

KRULWICH: What do you mean, a clock in our brain? What in our brain would tick or tock?

Prof. MECK: Well, the neural conduction velocity slow down, but the…

KRULWICH: The neural conduction velocity. What is that?

Prof. MECK: Oh, it’s the speed at which our brain cells beat or pulse.

KRULWICH: Meaning that time flows through us differently when we’re older. Evidence for this comes from a classic experiment, which in a very rough way, we did right out on the streets of Washington, D.C. I asked my colleague Jessica Goldstein to go out and to stop pedestrians who looked either very young or very old.

KRULWICH: So Jessica then asked these two groups, the older ones and the younger ones, to close their eyes and then do a very simple time measurement.

JESSICA GOLDSTEIN: What I’d like you to do is to tell me when you think one minute has passed.

So what did they find during this experiment? Turns out that when younger individuals call the minute they usually turn out to be 55, 60 or 65 seconds on the clock. However, with older people, around 60 and up, on average, they wait longer before they say that a minute has elapsed…like 90 seconds!!! The theory being that because our brains are pulsing differently, we thinking more slowly and in turn, the world seems to be going by us faster.

The conclusion: perhaps there is more new in our lives when we’re young, or maybe our brains pulse differently when we’re young, or could it be that when we’re young, each year hold more value to us. “Whatever the reason, sooner or later, everybody gets this feeling.”

5 thoughts on “tick, tick, tick…

  1. It’s an interesting idea to think that our brains work slower as we get older making time seem to go faster. I heard a different explanation of this same feeling once that satisfied me. When your young, each minute is a much larger proportion of your lifetime. Well, let’s take days for example because the math is easier to grasp: a day for a two-year-old is about 1/730 of their lifetime. A day for a 21-year-old is about 1/7,665 of their life. To me it makes perfect sense that 1/730 feels a lot larger/longer than 1/7,665 and that this effect becomes more and more noticeable as we age. Now how could this be used to explain the minute estimates? I don’t know. I would think you would adjust your perception of a minute as it becomes a smaller and smaller portion of your life which wouldn’t explain the findings, so maybe it really does have something to do with the brain.


  2. I found this post interesting and also have heard the part that Lauren commented. As I was reading it though, I also thought of another explanation that my parents would explain to me as I was growing up. My parents attempted to explain to me that the brain essentially had a battery in it. As people aged, their batteries were weaker and therefore a minute was really a minute and a half. I find it intellectually stimulating that there is actual neurological basis behind this.


  3. I think both the pulse and proportion hypotheses have a lot of merit. I also believe that there are daily, environmental influences that impact the feeling of mental motion. For example, have you ever woken up on a rainy Sunday morning only to feel that it is taking forever for the hours to pass? What about a typical Tuesday? You guys have all witnessed my need for “soup at hand” because my Tuesdays and Thursdays involve me running across campus from 9 to 4 without a moment to grab a meal. On these days, I feel like time is going by so quickly because there is so much to do. Thus, I think environmental factors play a major role in the experience of perception of time. For example, I know my Tuesdays at age 3, 6, or 10 were much less hectic than my Tuesdays now and in the future.


  4. I couldn’t help but think of an article I recently read about stress and aging ( I think I did it for my third slide blitz…). The study showed that in older rats, the the negative feedback from stress also takes a longer time than compared to younger rats. This means that the glucocorticoids hang around for longer periods of time before preventing the onset of more glucocorticoids. I don’t know how I feel about getting older…losing track of time and being stressed for longer…hmm


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