By Emma Young
“Like a ball rolling down a hill, time often seems to pick up momentum, going faster and faster as we get older…,” write the authors of a new paper in Self and Identity that aims to explain the reasons for this phenomenon. Understand it properly, and it might be possible to stop it – because as Mark Landau at the University of Kansas, US, and his colleagues also note: “Perceiving life as rapidly slipping away is psychologically harmful: unpleasant, demotivating, and possibly even hostile to the sense that life is meaningful.”
The philosopher Douglas Hofstadter suggested that the acceleration of time is the result of our increasing tendency through life to package distinct experiences into bigger “chunks”. For example, for a child, a walk in the park can involve so many new experiences – their first sighting of flowers covered in snow, perhaps, or of a scary dog – that each are remembered as distinct individual events. For the adult accompanying that child, if nothing novel happens, all the varied sensations and impressions associated with that walk may be collapsed – or “chunked” – into a single memory of “a walk in the park”. Since, as far as the adult is concerned, only one thing happened, that span of time will be remembered as brief, while for the child, it will feel long.
To test this explanation, the researchers first asked 107 volunteers to either write about how events over the past year of their lives were similar to the events of other years (a task designed to encourage the chunking of past experiences) or to write about how events and activities could have turned out differently (the “no chunking” group). The participants who’d chunked their previous year perceived it as having passed more quickly than an “objective” calendar year, whereas the other group did not.
Next, the researchers asked a different group of 115 undergraduates to spend two minutes reflecting on how much time they had spent engaged in four different activity categories (school, job, socialising and other), either over the past year, or over the past day. The idea was that this would prompt them to “chunk” experiences together, but over different periods. All these participants then indicated how quickly they felt the previous year had passed, compared with the “average” year. Those who’d “chunked” their past year reported feeling that it had gone faster than those who’d chunked the previous day. “It appears that perceiving a given period as passing faster depends on whether one chunks that period,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers also reasoned that if chunking our experiences causes an existential erosion of life’s meaning (by stripping our memories of evocative detail), then we might use nostalgia to help compensate for this. After the two-minute reflection period, the researchers asked all the participants questions about how important nostalgia was to them. Those who’d chunked a whole year said nostalgia was more important than those who’d chunked the previous day, presumably because they’d lost the detail from a greater part of their lives to the chunking process.
Similar results were found with another group of 105 adults asked to draw pie charts, showing how they’d spent their time either over the past year or past day. Again, those who’d chunked a year reported feeling that it had passed more quickly than those who chunked a day. And they also placed more importance on nostalgia.
“It is worth noting,” the researchers add, that “the inductions used here are meant to simulate a chunking process that, we suspect, takes place spontaneously”. We may well chunk all kinds of periods of time – from a day (into “commute”, “work”, “family time”, “eating”, for example) to a year, or even, especially as we reach middle age (when people tend to report that the passage of time really accelerates), even a decade or more. It’s easy to see how looking back over the past ten years of your life and remembering it in terms of just a few “chunks” (“work”, “family time”, “holiday”, for example) could make it feel as though it has passed in a flash.
On a positive note, if grouping our experiences into broader chunks is a key part of the reason that life seems to speed up as we get older, there are possible ways to counteract this.
One antidote might be mindfulness, the researchers suggest. People who try to live “in the moment” may better appreciate the uniqueness of those moments once they have passed, making it less likely that they’ll be swallowed up into a “chunk”. Meditation and engaging with art may perhaps also help, they write, since “these experiences have the potential to re-sensitise us to the satisfaction of simple things and, perhaps, counteract life’s quickening pace”.