British Columbia

We ask kids, seniors and a philosopher: Does time really go faster as you age?

As a wise song once said, "the years start coming and they don't stop coming;" at least it sure feels that way. It turns out time can speed up for adults, but age isn't the real story.

How busy you are, how routine your life is, and brain development milestones all affect sense of time

Grade 1 students Cheyenne Verster, left, and Parker Hogan replace their usual faces with clock faces as they talk about time. If you feel like the years are faster as an adult than they were when you were a kid, you may be right. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The year 2019 is rapidly drawing to a close and it might lead some to ask: already?

If it feels like the years are getting shorter, you're not alone — but age isn't really the reason.

It turns out there are other reasons why the time truly seems to fly, especially for adults with busy lives.

"The time when you're … an adult really does seem to go much faster than it did when you were a kid," said Simon Fraser University philosophy professor Holly Andersen.

"Just suddenly, it's the middle of December and you weren't expecting it. Suddenly it's a new year."

SFU professor Holly Andersen said keeping track of time and events through time is central to human experience. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Andersen studies time from a philosophical perspective, while also drawing on physics, psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

She and other researchers have found that for various reasons, the years do feel shorter for adults than for children — but the clock isn't ticking ever faster as we age.

'A persistent myth'

It might seem logical that a year goes by faster as you get older.

After all, to a six-year-old, a year is one-sixth of their life. To a 50-year-old, the fraction is much smaller.

But Andersen said that is "a persistent myth" unlikely to explain the phenomenon.

"Your brain isn't sort of keeping track with a universal background clock," she said.

SFU professor Holly Andersen sometimes uses baked goods to illustrate time concepts to her students. At the left end of the banana loaf is the Big Bang and the future is at the right. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

There are several factors that better explain why adults feel as if time passes faster for adults than children. 

Familiarity is one of them. Adults are generally more familiar with their daily routines than kids are.

"When you drive down a new road for the first time it sometimes seems to take a really long time," she offered. "But then as you drive that road more and more you really become familiar with it and then it seems to go by really fast."

Cheyenne Verster, left, Parker Hogan, middle, and Arlen Drover discuss their thoughts on the nature of time at a Burnaby home. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Another is how busy you are. Andersen said adults are much more likely to be juggling multiple projects or responsibilities than children. They also need to plan longer-term.

The final factor is the brain hitting developmental milestones: first at around six to eight years of age and again in the mid-20s.

These developmental milestones impact attention and how we act when thinking of time. One example is how a four-year-old might struggle with delayed gratification, exemplified by the marshmallow test, which famously asked kids in the 1960s whether they could resist the temptation to eat one marshmallow now, if they were promised two marshmallows later. 

"Four-year-olds really can't picture themselves in the future in this way," Andersen said.

Kids and seniors weigh in

For children around the age of that first developmental milestone, thoughts on the speed of time varied as they chatted on the living room couch of a Burnaby home.

"It moves 60 seconds at a time," declared Arlen Drover, 7. "And it doesn't go fast. It goes slow."

"It depends on how much fun you had," added Parker Hogan, 6.

Arlen Drover, left to right, Parker Hogan and Cheyenne Verster are students at Forest Grove Elementary in Burnaby. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Residents of the Tapestry retirement community near the University of British Columbia said they felt the years do speed up.

"Faster and faster and faster," said Kathleen Drysdale, 91. "You're just busier. Doing more, interested in more."

Her friend, Beverley Greenwood, 80, believes only boredom slows time down.

"Or if you're stuck with someone and they keep going on and on and on," added Greenwood. 

"I take my hearing aids out."

Beverley Greenwood, left, and Kathleen Drysdale are pictured at Tapestry in Vancouver. Drysdale said younger people need to make every moment count because you'll never know which are the important moments. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Andersen says she feels time passing quickly between her busy academic career and being a parent to two kids

"[My seven-year-old son] was really interested in Mo Willems books ... really easy picture books," Andersen recounted.

"And then last night he sat down to read Harry Potter by himself because he was bored that we hadn't read more of it to him.

"So that was really like, wow, OK. We need to slow down and enjoy this."

With files from Belle Puri