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For many people time seems to run faster as they get older. That is, for an old person an hour, a day or a year seems to be shorter than for a young person.

Is there any hard data for such phenomenon? And if so, what is the cause?

To name a few possibilities it can be about the reaction time (so one have more or less 'turns' in a minute), the relative time comparing to one's age, ways in which memory changes with age or habits (younger may live more active life). Of course, there may be different causes for different time scales. However, I haven't found anything but anecdotal data and home-made theories.

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I wouldn't think there is any age related causality with time perception. I'm thinking more along the lines of how you can forget almost any detail while driving to work, but remember intricate details about going to a concert. When you don't receive any new 'impulses' you are likely to perceive that as time passing faster. 'older' people tend to have that more. Once you start working life becomes more routine, and you can notice a clear difference in perception of time. Unfortunately I can't substantiate any of this, it's just a hunch. ;p –  Steven Jeuris Jan 22 '12 at 22:12
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There's definitely a finding that, when asked to produce time intervals, older individuals produce systematically longer intervals than younger individuals. I think there was a BBC documentary that "replicated" this live, but I can't remember its name nor the original reference... –  Mike Jan 23 '12 at 1:13
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@Mike: I think that that the reference you are looking for is the one I'm citing in my answer below. If it isn't, I would be very interested in knowing you reference if you find it! –  Rasmus Bååth Feb 20 '12 at 8:36
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See also this question on the biology stack exchange. –  Matt McHenry Mar 3 '12 at 3:12
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@BenCole: hehe, I get the idea. Well, since the harmonic series diverges, that still implies that if my body would live forever, my mind can experience infinite time too. If the behavior is only slightly different an infinitely living agent would still live a finite life :) –  NikolajK Jan 27 at 0:10

4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

There is "hard evidence" regarding how timing and the subjective experience of intervals changes as a function of age. McAuley et al. (2006) ran a battery of different timing and time perception tasks on participants of ages ranging from 4 to 95 years. One finding that relates to your question was that children in the range of 4 to 7 years preferred and, when asked to tap, produced sequences where the inter response interval was much shorter (around 300 ms) than that for adults (around 500 ms). One interpretation of this finding is indeed that small children prefer living on a faster time scale than grownups.

Referenses

The time of our lives: Life span development of timing and event tracking. McAuley, J. Devin;Jones, Mari Riess;Holub, Shayla;Johnston, Heather M.;Miller, Nathaniel S. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 135(3), Aug 2006, 348-367. doi: 10.1037/0096-3445.135.3.348, free pdf

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Wikipedia on time perception

The Wikipedia article on "time perception". In particular, the section on long-term time perception cites a couple of articles. * The articles makes the common point that a unit of time as a proportion of one's life decreases with age. A few empirical studies are also cited.

Ukraintseva (2001)

Ukraintseva (2001) wrote an article devoted to the topic and makes several interesting points about time perception over aging. E.g.,

  • Ukraintseva argues the rate of aging decreases with age and that this may have relevance to experience of time.
  • Ukraintseva also suggests that living may be slower in some sense with age citing examples of slower "metabolic rate, rate of cell proliferation, physical, mental alertness, and the rate of living in general".

Graf and Grondin

Graf and Grondin have an article that reviews the literature on the psychology of time perception and discusses age related differences. However, the article seems to focus more on aspects of performance rather than the subjective experience of time slowing.

  • They cite a few studies that suggest that in relation to judging time intervals, older adults may be less accurate.

Personal musings

My own random musings (treat them as you wish) suggest that topics such as flow, goals, rhythm of life, and boredom might also be relevant.

  • A feature of being immersed in a state of flow is a sense of time distortion.
  • As we get older, perhaps we start to set more long term goals, and this might shape the experience of time and change.
  • Increased levels of routinisation and automaticity might also decrease awareness of time passing.
  • Perhaps knowing how to avoid boredom would be relevant to time passing.

References

  • Graf and Grondin "Time perception and time-based prospective memory" in TIMING THE FUTURE - The Case for a Time-Based Prospective Memory (FREE PDF)
  • Ukraintseva (2001) Aging and the subjective sense of time. (FREE PDF)

The above are just a few quick points (it's not my area):

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To extend on @BenCole comment, an interesting summary of different models of time perceptions can be found in this paper. Now these models are in a sense more descriptive than the fundamental biological hypothesis mentioned by caseyr547, so might not be ready to call these "explanations", depending on what you mean by the term.

The models meant to give a precise (functional) form to extend to which time perception decrease as the "stock" of experienced time increases.

A simple model which seem to have attracted some attention initially was that of logarithmic time perception (see http://www.kafalas.com/Logtime.html#LM) :

[perception of change from time $t$ to $t'$] = constant * $[\log(t') - \log(t)]$.

Apparently, it was an attempt to link time perception with some interpretation of the so-called Weber-Fechner law relating the intensity of a perception to the magnitude of some initial stimulus of the same nature (e.g. the perceived increase in the weight of an object depending on the initial weight of the object).

Now researcher seems to have found little evidence of such relation in the case of time perception, see the aforementionned article and http://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/BF03204158#page-1. So other model have been developed. The first paper describes some of these attempts at reaching more accurate models.

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Weber's ideas are ok if we were static (I disagree with it somewhat)...but i think you really added to the op's request with your answer so +1 –  caseyr547 Jan 27 at 2:01
    
I would not dare to give an opinion about the validity of Weber's model because I am not really into cognitive sciences and know too few about it, but from what I understand of Weber's theory, I totally agree with its static nature. As I mentioned, from what I read, the formalism of Weber's theory was more of an inspiration for further model of time perception, and a direct extension to time perception could never be grounded empirically. –  Martin Van der Linden Jan 27 at 2:13

Time perception is active field of study in psychology and neuroscience. How individuals experience time is so subjective and interwoven into the fabric of our being that it cannot be directly explained it can only be tested. Current theories include that of lower dopamine in the aged (it is debated) and maturation of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus (it is not debated). There are other minor theories which have less evidence for their validity. Emotions are known to affect our perception of time in a temporary way.

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Thanks for the answer. –  NikolajK Jan 26 at 16:09

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