Does it feel like time is moving faster as you get older? When you were a kid, a summer day lasted forever. Now, you look up and another month or year has passed and perhaps with little to show for it.
Good news: Neuropsychologist Marc Wittmann, PhD, says there is a lot you can do to change that fleeting feeling and slow down time. “Clock time” moves forward at a steady pace. So does your body’s internal clock, which synchronizes and coordinates circadian rhythms and autonomous functions. But Dr. Wittmann has found that the way our brain perceives time is highly subjective. Example: 30 minutes stuck in traffic feels much longer than 30 minutes playing with your grandchild. This is not random. It is influenced by a few predictable mechanisms such as the amount of novelty in your daily activities, your emotional state and your memory.
Bottom Line Personal asked Dr. Wittmann to explain how you can use these mechanisms to alter your perception of time…
Every waking second of every day, you take in raw data about the world. Your mind continuously edits this information before presenting to you a version of what’s transpiring out there. At the same time, your brain filters how fast or slow those events seem to happen. Example: Several years ago, I was driving down a rain-slickened road. I turned a corner and lost control of my car. As the car spun, everything seemed to slow to a crawl. It took me no more than a fraction of a second to get the car on track again, but it felt much longer. Why this happened: Danger that threatens your survival causes your brain’s internal processes to run faster, and that heightened awareness creates the impression that events are unfolding slowly. Several other mechanisms also cause you to experience present time as moving faster or slower than it does. They include…
Novelty: When you are bored or impatient and lack meaningful thoughts to engage your brain, you are more attuned to the actual passage of time. Conversely when you are busy or involved in new or challenging situations, you become so focused that you lose your sense of self and don’t think about time at all.
Heightened emotion: When you are experiencing anxiety, loneliness or physical or emotional pain, you are constantly aware of time. But time accelerates when you engage in activities that create positive emotions such as a conversation with a close friend or when you get in the flow while playing music or reading a riveting novel.
How your brain handles retrospective time—when you are looking back at events in the past—works very differently than when your brain is processing in real time. Retrospective time is driven mostly by memory. The richer, more diverse and numerous your memories of a past event or period in your life, the slower you recall time passing. The less vivid your memories, the faster time will seem to have passed.
That’s why many people regard childhood as such a drawn-out period. When you are young, you have a steady stream of brand-new experiences. The first time your brain encounters something, it encodes the memories in detail. But when you reach adulthood, you fall into routines (for example, the daily work commute), so the brain has to respond to much less surprising or new information. When you look back, nothing sticks out as very significant, so the duration of time you associate with that period shrinks. By the time you are elderly or retired, you may have very rigid lifestyle patterns. In your memory, the days merge into one another and become indistinguishable. Example: During the pandemic, many older folks’ lives were defined by forced isolation (not to mention the constant fear that every sniffle might mean they had caught COVID). When studying older people’s recent experiences of time, they typically report that the days felt insufferably slow, and yet two years might have flown by.
My research suggests that making certain adjustments to your daily and regular behavior can change your sense of retrospective time. The more you can push yourself out of your comfort zone and create different, interesting experiences, the denser your memories…and the slower the months and years will seem to pass. Try the following strategies…
Get out of autopilot mode. Performing the same routines every day may feel comforting, but it means learning and awareness aren’t taking place, and there will be no outstanding memories to retrieve. Even minor changes can shake up your neural networks and enhance your perception of those experiences. Examples: Drive a different way home from work for a month…wear your watch on the opposite wrist for a week…change up your exercise routine.
Give away your time to others. Volunteering in a way that is very meaningful to you or puts you in a challenging situation leaves a powerful impression. While you have less time for yourself in the present, looking back at your efforts will make the time period seem fuller.
Have projects that require sustained effort and quantifiable goals. Many of us reach the end of the year and realize that everything is still the same. You haven’t dropped those 10 pounds or cracked the pile of books on your nightstand. Achieving satisfying and challenging objectives serve as powerful memory anchors. Making and recognizing progress not only builds up intrinsic motivation but also prevents you from slipping into automatic, forgettable routines. Important: When you achieve a goal, recognize it in a memorable way. Announce it on Facebook, or reward yourself so you cement it in your mind as a milestone.
Seek a little novelty during the holidays. If you have the same tree-decorating and dessert party every Christmas, your memories start to feel sparse. Solution: Alter your holidays in special ways so each one stands out more. Make an unusual or exotic dessert…or invite a surprise guest to your party.
Plan special activities on the first and last full days of vacations. Does it ever feel like your vacations are over in a heartbeat? Reason: Even though we may have new and exciting experiences during a vacation, we tend to remember beginnings and ends most clearly. Those particular days often are forgettable, filled with mundane activities such as adjusting to the time zone, staying close to the hotel until you get your bearings and prepping for the return trip home. Better: Schedule memorable events on transition days—splurge at a pricey restaurant or purchase a piece of artwork that you can display prominently in your house—so that these days stand out the most after you get home.