Where Did The Time Go? How Your Time Perception Changes As You Age

Updated January 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Whether time flies or crawls, most people are aware of its passage. What we think of as time of neurochemicals interacting with an incredibly complex organic computer—your brain. Read on to learn more about how humans experience time, how we form and remember memories, and how our sense of time can be distorted. 

Does Time Often Feel Like It’s Slipping Away Or Standing Still?

What Is Time Perception?

The perception of time is all the sensory stimuli, cognitive processes, and environmental changes you use to mark the passage and awareness of time. People can process the subjective experience of time and duration of events through a complex neural mechanism. 

“Time perception is a fundamental element of human awareness. Our consciousness, our ability to perceive the world around us and, ultimately, our very sense of self are shaped upon our perception of time in a loop connecting memories of the past, present sensations, and expectations about the future.” — Authors of Feel the Time. Time Perception as a Function of Interoceptive Processing

The Tempo Of Life

According to the Proportional Reasoning Theory proposed by French philosopher Paul Janet in 1897, people’s perception of time increases as they age. In general, there may be vast differences between how a clock measures time and your awareness of it. Illustrated with an interactive visualization by Austrian designer Maximilian Kiener, the theory states, among other things, that by the time someone reaches age seven, they have already perceived 50% of their life. 

Where Did The Time Go?

A 2016 study confirmed that age is linked to errors in the judgment and estimation of time. Participants were asked to estimate a two-minute time interval. Individuals over age 50 shortened the time by an average of 24.6% compared to a group of 30-year-old contributors. 

The Unbreakable Link Between Memory And Time

Your enjoyment or discomfort during an event shapes your memory of it and how long it seems to last. These temporal illusions can differ from person to person, so two individuals may experience the same event and remember it in entirely separate ways. 

Memory Traces

One of the most substantial factors in how you remember the duration of an event is the number of memory traces or mental images you form. Children form more memory frames per time unit than adults, so they tend to remember events—and the passage of time—with more awareness. For example, if their brains were computers, children would typically have a higher frames-per-second rate and a substantially higher quality video than adults, particularly if the children had fun and the adults did not. 

Brain Chemistry And Time Perception

Unlike the primary five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch), your sense of time is not based on concrete sensory information but rather on levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the complex workings of your brain. Functional MRI scans monitored brain activity while conducting research about time perception and reward reactions.

A 2014 study showed a significant link between severe mental health conditions and time perception/estimation abnormalities. A rare neurological condition called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome also substantially alters a person’s experience of time. 

Mental Health Conditions Affecting Time Perception

  • Depression

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Schizophrenia

  • Anxiety and related disorders

  • Substance use disorders

  • Eating disorders

  • Parkinson’s disease

  • Autism

—  Time Perception and Time Experience in Psychiatric Disorders

Time Distortion And Collective Trauma

According to a recent study, collective trauma, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantine, can drastically alter how people perceive time. While locked inside their homes, many people felt that time had slowed or stopped entirely. The change in routine, coupled with the deep discomfort caused by the situation, caused people to collectively form more memory frames during quarantine, which in turn made the time feel like it had stopped moving. 

What Is Time Blindness?

Time blindness is the inability to measure and estimate time accurately. It is a frequent symptom of neurodevelopment disorders such as autism and ADHD, and typically goes hand and hand with an inability to effectively manage time through executive functioning. Time blindness can negatively affect nearly every aspect of someone’s life and may frequently lead to confrontation. Loved ones may benefit from treating it as a sensory issue rather than intentionally disregarding others’ time and schedules. 

Symptoms of Time Blindness

  • You may frequently become distracted and lose track of time. 

  • Procrastination because you think you have enough time is a regular occurrence. 

  • You sometimes feel as if your “internal clock” is off, out not calibrated correctly.

  • Losing track of time during transitions from one activity to another happens often.

  • You chronically demonstrate poor time management skills.

  • Boredom is a frequent companion and may lead you to stop paying attention to your surroundings, so you don’t form an accurate impression of time passing. 

  • You often exhibit impulsive behavior. 

Overcoming Time Blindness

  • Identify which areas of your life are most affected by time blindness and work to develop ways to establish a manageable method to keep track of time.

  • Establish a set routine and use numerous alarms to keep you on track and on time.  

  • Use visible timers to keep watch and have the option to track time. 

  • Recognize which activities tend to cost more time than you have and avoid them if time is a factor. 

  • Start small. While you may want perfect time perception right now, go slowly and start with something easy. 

  • Consistently remind yourself why you want to make this change.

  • Break up large, complicated tasks into smaller, more manageable milestones.

Self-Regulation And The Experience Of Time

A 2013 study by Kathleen Vohs shows that self-regulation of emotions can dramatically affect the subjective passage of time. For the study, participants were asked to self-contriol their emotions while watching a video clip and estimating the amount of time that passed. The control group did the same without self-regulation. According to Vohs, people may believe self-regulatory efforts consume an extraordinary amount of time, which could potentially account for abandonment rates and the conviction that it “doesn’t work” after a single attempt. 

Interoceptive Processing And Awareness Of Time

A recent study measured the connection between the perception of time and Interoception or the sense of what is happening inside your body. Results indicate there may be a link between time perception and the interoceptive system, which in turn links various mental health conditions with increased or decreased insular cortex activity in the brain. 

Another study showed similar outcomes in individuals with and without cognitive disabilities. The results indicate many statistically significant links between self-rated efficiency (with and without cognitive deficits), time management, organization, planning, parental sense of confidence, and other rating scales. However, researchers would be required to form a complete picture of how this information related to human nature on a larger scale. 

“The nature of time is rooted in our body. Constellations of impulses arising from the flesh constantly create our interoceptive perception and, in turn, the unfolding of these perceptions defines human awareness of time.” — Authors of a study on time perception and interoception.

Reach Out For Help

Losing track of time, missing an appointment, or being late for a date are minor events you can likely overcome on your own. However, if you’re missing chunks of time with no memory, frequently feel as if time races or stands still, or have had time-related issues make a significant impact on your life, it may be time to reach out for help. Working with a licensed therapist can help you identify the source of your issues and plan a path of coping strategies and lifestyle changes to help you fix the problem. 

How Therapy Can Help

Whether you’re struggling with the passage of time, experiencing time distortion due to a mental health condition, or merely want to reinforce positive thought patterns and behaviors, consider virtual therapy through online platforms like BetterHelp. With lower costs and wait times, and a flexible appointment format from the comfort of your home, online treatment is more straightforward and effective than ever before. 

Online psychotherapeutic interventions are effective and viable as a useful and accessible treatment avenue, according to a recent study. From cognitive behavioral therapy to interoceptive stimulation, internet-based sessions may be a convenient treatment option. One study showed that time management training was an effective aid in the improvement of anxiety, depression, and sleep quality symptoms. 

Takeaway 

Your perception of time can change drastically throughout the course of your life. The information outlined in this article may help you understand time perception and how it can make it feel like the years fly by as you get older. 

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