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The Passage of Time is Different for Everyone

Have you ever heard the phrase “time flies while you’re having fun”? Do you wonder why older people say time flies while little kids can’t wait to grow up? Or what about those moments that “last for eternity”? This might seem like a mystery but it’s actually very simple.

The Passage of Time is Different Depending On What You’re Doing

Think back to a period of your life where you thought time flied. You’re probably thinking of a time when you were relaxed, probably having fun. Maybe you were playing Monopoly with your kids, or hanging out with your significant other. Now, think of a time when you thought time was really stretched out and would never end. You’re probably thinking of something relatively hard/stressful/unpleasant, like studying.

So why exactly do these more stressful moments seem longer?

What Is Time To Us?

To answer that question, we should take a look at what exactly time is to us. At this very moment, how do you know that time has passed? If you really think about it, you only perceive a state of “now” because you have memories of the days that have gone by. Without those memories, you would have no concept of a past or a future. For example, if an old man suddenly got amnesia and remembers absolutely nothing, the world would look more or less the same to him as any newborn child (assuming he forgot all his reflexes and stuff). Therefore, our perception of time is strictly a function of how we remember events!

How Do Our Memories Work?

So, how exactly are our memories formed? Here is the generally understood way:

* I take in some piece of information through my 5 sense.
* My brain processes that information and automatically retrieves any similar experiences. (There are some cool memory tricks you can learn by knowing this – see chaining)
* If that information is somehow unique and very different from my previous experiences (i.e. the “fetch” of information doesn’t really produce any great matches), that information is then stored in my brain, its intensity and clarity dependent on the uniqueness of the information.
* If the information is substantially similar, most of it is discarded (basically only the different parts are entered into your brain)

Why The Passage of Time Changes

Clearly, the more memories you build during a particular period of time, the more you would remember for that period of time. If you only remember one new thing in the last ten years, of course it’s going to seem like it passes quickly. However, if you’re a kid and every new thing is an amazing experience, then of course you will form more memories. That is why the childhood years tend to be very memorable for most people (at least some period of it anyway). This also explains why old people seem to perceive the passage of time faster. For the most part, they do mostly the same things day in and day out, with no new memories being formed. If you ask them what’s changed in their life in the last 20 years, it’s probably not too different. A 20 year old on the other hand, would have acquired an incredibly huge amount of new memories in the past 20 years. So time actually DOES pass faster as you get older.

Some More Observations On The Passage of Time

By this line of argument, it would seem that everyone would try to acquire more memories, and they do to an extent. Afterall, who wouldn’t want “more time” so they can “live longer”? However, the more memories you get, the harder it is to try to fit in new memories, since each new memory requires fitting it in to the existing intuitive framework. This is a process you see often in schools as people bang their heads against the wall trying to “figure certain things out”.

It also explains why older people tend to be more resistant to change – It becomes easier to discard new pieces of information that don’t fit, rather than rewire your entire framework to adjust for this new memory. However, this also means there are less new memories being formed and hence why time tends to pass faster as you grow older.

Control The Passage of Time

So how would you make your life “longer”? Simply experience more new things. For some people, that means visiting new places. For others, it means learning something new. For me though, it’s more about developing better theories and expanding my awareness of the universe. That could mean staring at the same things for long periods of time. The objects stay the same, but the perception changes, and new memories get formed.

It is very similar to the intense moments that seem to last forever. Whenever a new theory gets developed, a significant rewriing in the brain occurs that changes the perception of everything. Everything you have ever observed is now a little different, resulting in the formation of massive amounts of new memories. Depending on the magnitude of this new experience, every single memory you used to have could be different now. These are the moments that people say “seem like a lifetime”, because well, they pretty much are!

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7 Responses to “The Passage of Time”

  1. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth on August 9th, 2007 7:07 pm

    [...] Worth? How to Control Your Thoughts and Get What You Want Why You Should Start Saving Money Today The Passage of Time Give Me a Little More Time! Grow Your Pile Of Money Do You Get Money? Why Not To [...]

  2. How To Deal With Worrying on February 19th, 2008 2:15 am

    [...] you do this, you start to form memories of all of these situations as discussed in the passage of time. If you do this long enough, then most of your memories will be of these situations. After all, [...]

  3. How To Stop Worrying on March 18th, 2008 5:08 am

    [...] you do this, you start to form memories of all of these situations as discussed in the passage of time. If you do this long enough, then most of your memories will be of these situations. After all, [...]

  4. “Take rest: a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop” ~ Ovid at Quixotical on November 13th, 2008 2:06 pm

    [...] It seems almost unbelievable that Thursday is, once more, nearly over and done with.  I think part of my problem with coming to terms with the swift passage of time is that I don’t feel I am achieving much, or at least that I am not achieving as much as I would like for one reason or another.  Alternatively, perhaps my perception of the passage of time is a result of the lack of achievement, since much of what I would like to achieve involves exploring new things – I found this blog post on the subject quite interesting. [...]

  5. Razibul Hassan on July 14th, 2011 3:48 am

    There is a controversy about the present? How do you define present. Every fleeting moment is becoming past and future is advancing to the past through a transparent phrase ( present).. Well, I I enjoyed reading your articles.

    One question for you to be answered :
    “You are looking at the sky and see a dazzling star hanging high above there. What do you thing ? It’s present? What if the star died thousand years back and the it’s light has just came to your visualization !!!

    what is it? Pass observation or present?

    Keep tuning and come with more brilliant posts like this …

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  7. on May 29th, 2013 2:01 pm

    Very! Very interesting and useful post! Thanks a lot for sharing!