Aging and the Perception of Time
Time perception is a construction of the brain. How fast we perceive time to be passing – or “consciousness time” – can be manipulated or distorted, with our evaluations of time differing based on our state of being at the time of judgment.
Could how you age and how long you live be depend on that perception?
People tend to see their will as more determinant of future events than of past events. When we contemplate the future we feel as though we have a choice and are likely to influence future events, but when we consider our own past we often feel like many of the events that have occurred were out of our control. When people see that their actions are tied to what actually happens around them, their perception of free will transforms, or at the very least, is activated.
Similarly, consciousness time also depends on your projected future state of being. If you’re counting down to a root canal, time speeds up as you wait. But if you’re tallying days until the birth of your first child, time seems immeasurably slow. If you’re bored or suffering, every second counts, and time seems to expand or slow down. When you’re ecstatic, moments glitter right through your fingers.
Since time perception is a construction of the brain, what would happen to our sense of time if we knew we could to live to be 150? Or even 500?
Proponents of “radical longevity” believe that the first person to live beyond 150 years has already been born. Billionaire Peter Diamandis is developing gene sequencing techniques to make “100 the new 60”. Others like Aubrey de Grey believe longevity research will enable “longevity escape velocity,” a point when our technological ability to add years to our lives catches up to passing time until we not only break even but defeat aging altogether.
Having more time might sound excellent, but critics fear that longer lifespans will rob us of the urgency that lends life meaning and value, and will motivate us to procrastinate more.
Is this true? Will living longer feel like longer?
Despite the widespread belief that the subjective speed of the passage of time increases with age, empirical results are controversial.
Momentary perception of the passage of time and the retrospective judgment of past periods of time are a function of chronological age; however, small-to-moderate effects account for at most 10% of the variance. Results generally support the widespread perception that the passage of time speeds up with age.
One theory contends that time speeds up as we get older if we consider the proportionality of time perception related to age. The older you get, the smaller one year is, as a percentage of your total life. So the years go by faster and faster. By the time you’re 98, a year is little more than one percent of your whole life and feels fleeting. But if you add more years, it won’t fly as fast. As lifespans extend, one year of life at age 50 will feel longer for someone with a lifespan of 150 than 100. Time will effectively slow down.
From a mathematical angle, this makes sense. However, critics argue that proportionality theory ignores the role of attention, emotion, and novelty, and that it doesn’t matter how long our lives are, but instead what we fill our lives with.
Cognitive psychologists like Martin Conway say that we are most likely to vividly remember experiences from between the ages of 15 and 25 – a time of firsts: Our first erotic relationships, first jobs, first travel without parents, first time living away from home. The salience – or memorability – of these experiences is heightened by their novelty, forming a “reminiscence bump.” As we enter our 30s and novelty subsides, fewer memories stick with us over time. This is important, because the fewer memories we have within a time period, the faster that time period seems to fly, according to cognitive psychologists. With fewer salient memories in our older years, time speeds up incrementally…
That is, unless we fill those years with rich, new experiences. That’s precisely what longevity researchers aim to do: to increase not only the number of years lived but to enhance our health and functionality so we live more fully for longer. Longer lives will conceivably allow us to have the experiences otherwise fitting in two-three lifespans. Though this scenario now seems improbable, it may eventually become the norm.
From infancy to old age, we accomplish psychosocial goals (e.g. formulating a sense of identity in adolescence; maintaining psychological and biological integrity, as well as legacy, in old age). Memory theorists say our specific memories are clustered around these “goal posts.” The more we have, the more we experience and remember, and the more time passes slowly, abundantly.
Maybe the sense of “urgency” isn’t what gives life meaning. Maybe a life with more time to create rich experiences and memories will be meaningful on its own, without the need to live in high-speed.
February 9, 2020