Time flies, whether we have fun or not. Time also seems to pass more quickly as we age. In our childhood memories, time was always abundant. Afternoons spent at the playground or the pool seemed longer. Summer vacations felt endless. Every new experience unfolded as if in slow motion. But as adults, we are barely able to keep up with the challenges life throws at us day in and day out. Before we know it, 10, 20 years have gone by without a moment to catch our breath. How can our perception of time change so dramatically?
Scientists have long asked this question but have not been able to come up with a satisfying answer. Of course, the notion that time goes by with greater speed in our later years is nothing but an illusion. Yet it appears so to most of us as we look back, wondering what has happened.
Some experts believe that our time perception is strongly influenced by two mental functions, namely attention and memory. When we first encounter or learn about something new, a high level of alertness and retention of information is required of us. Once we become more familiar and develop certain routines, our efforts become less strenuous. In hindsight, we may even wonder why the initial learning curve had been so steep. That also applies to our perception of the time we had to invest in the learning process.
"The greater the cognitive demands of a task, the longer its duration is perceived to be," said Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, in an interview on the subject with the New York Times. Conversely, "repeated stimuli appear briefer in duration than novel stimuli of equal duration."
Since we have most of our first encounters with the world as children, it could explain the difference in how we experience time then compared to adulthood.
"First-time events -- your first date, the birth of your first child, that first big vacation, etc. -- are novel events and we tend to make more detailed and lasting memories of those first times," says Dr. Ronald E. Riggio, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College, California. "When we repeat the event, year after year, it is less likely to make unique or lasting impressions."
Additional explanations for our distorted time perception are offered by Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, president and medical director of the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. He says that most of us simply misjudge time distances. In our memory, some things that are important to us appear much closer than others that went, for whatever reason, by the wayside. For instance, we may remember a significant person or an event for a lifetime, while we hardly can recall last night's dinner.
As we pass through life, we likely come across fewer novelties but more routines that leave no marks. So we don't form as many memories, giving us the impression that time is vanishing before our eyes.
If we have too many uninspiring stretches of time, we'll get bored, which is actually not a relaxing experience but rather a form of stress. A study conducted by the York University, Toronto, Canada, found that boredom has similarly damaging health effects as stress. There are the same symptoms of an inability to focus, function and engage in satisfying activities.
So what can we do to make the most of whatever we have left on the clock? If you are overworked and stressed to the max, take breaks and slow down as often and much as you can, advises Dr. Riggio. Dare to expose yourself to new experiences; Travel; Learn a foreign language or a computer program; Envision your future as another exciting adventure instead of a twilight zone.
Most importantly, don't waste your time. Embrace life as you did when it was all new -- because it can be again if you make it so.
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading "Aging Well -- A Profile of Health and Vitality in Your Later Years."