The Speed of Time

03 November 2008
Presented by Diana O'Carroll.

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Why does time seem to go quicker as we age? It seems that the longer we live, the shorter the days seem to be. Paradoxically, sometimes the hours drag by while the weeks fly past! We find out why in this Question of the Week. Plus, we ask how long it would take to wipe all evidence of human life from the Earth...

In this episode

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00:00 - Does time go faster as you age?

I’ve noticed as I’ve grown older that time feels like it’s moving faster than when I was growing up. Is there any reason for this and what is it?

Does time go faster as you age?

We put this to John Wearden, Professor of Psychology, University of Keele...

The question posed is a simple question, but it has a complicated answer and it's not a thing that's been researched in any great detail unfortunately.

The commonest anecdote seems to be a kind of paradoxical statement about time where older people report that hours seem to drag but the months pass very quickly.  In other words, time seems to pass rather slowly when they're experiencing it but in retrospect seems to have flashed past very quickly. 

How can this happen? The feeling that time passing - whether time's passing quickly or slowly while you're listening to me, for example, generally seems to be governed by the activities that occupy the time period.

If you're watching an exciting film, for example, time seems to pass very quickly. If you're in some very boring situation time seems to pass very slowly.

So, when you look backwards over the day, it seems very long when there are a lot of activities. Whereas, if there are very few activities, particularly very few new activities, it may appear retrospectively very short.

The time paradox in older people, both the slowness of time as experienced as it passes and the retrospective feeling that it's flashing past, may be caused by a general tendency for older people to have fewer novel life experiences than they do when they're younger. That seems to account for both the apparently paradoxical aspects of time experienced in ageing...

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