Fast time and the ageing mind

Life-long learning slows the passing of time.

If you discovered that challenging yourself and keeping a steep learning curve while ageing would slow down your sense of time passing too quickly, would you want to increase your learning?

I believe in life-long learning, and a NY Times article by Dr Richard Friedman has strengthened my resolve to continue to challenge myself and learn. Part of my interest in life-long learning is the “use it or lose it” notion of exercising our brain. Now it seems that it can help modify our sense of time passing so quickly.

Often people talk about the perception that time passes more quickly as we age. I feel like I blinked three times and my son was suddenly older, I was older and each year seems to fly by, often at a startling rate. My “anxious self” worries: if it keeps going this fast, I may not be here for milestones that are so important to me.

Friedman’s cognitive illusion

Even though many of us view this as “a truth,” it’s hard to prove experimentally. Dr. Friedman calls this notion a “cognitive illusion”, citing studies in Germany, France and the US. Non-age related factors seem to influence our perception of time: emotions, attention and memory. He says: “To accurately gauge the passage of time required to accomplish a given task, you have to be able to focus and remember a sequence of information, which is why this is difficult for someone with ADD. On the whole most of us perceive short intervals of time similarly, regardless of our age.” “Why then,” he asks, “do older people look back at long stretches of their lives and feel it’s a race to the finish?” Dr. Friedman says our sense of time is a “cognitive illusion”. There are ways to understand it and to slow down “the velocity of time.”

He asks: “Does learning new things slow our internal sense of time?” He suggests we think back to what it was like when we were learning something for the first time – for example, learning to ride a bike or to swim or drive a car. Not long ago, at a parent’s class for driver’s education for teenagers, I realized that I no longer separated the components necessary to learn to drive. I took it all for granted, but needed to break the steps down into manageable learning sequences to be helpful to my son.

This experience seems to support Friedman’s comment: “It takes time to learn new tasks and to encode them in your memory. When you’re learning about the world for the first time, you are forming a fairly steady stream of new memories or events, places and people. When, as an adult, you look back at your childhood experiences, they appear to unfold in slow motion probably because the sheer number of them gives you the impression that they must have taken forever to accomplish.” As I recall, it seemed to have taken forever for me to learn to feel confident and competent driving, and now I take it for granted. More recently when I was trying to learn a new language for my adult Bat Mitzvah, time slowed down since the learning curve was so steep for me. Friedman suggests this is merely an illusion of the ways adults understand the past when they look through “the telescope of lost time.”

An important point he makes is that “almost all of us faced far steeper learning curves when young. Most adults do not explore and learn about the world as they did when younger: adult life lacks childhood’s constant discovery and endless novelty.” “Studies show that the greater the cognitive demands of a task, the longer its duration is perceived to be.” Friedman offers the example of his father who, after he retired, read about everything from astronomy to natural history, travel and gardening. He realized his father never commented on how fast or slowly his life seemed to be going. He was constantly learning, always alive to new ideas and experience. Perhaps this keeps us from noticing time passing.

He wonders if it really matters that older adults have an illusion about time speeding up; perhaps it does only “because the distortion signals that we might squeeze more out of life.” He asserts, “If you want time to slow down, become a student again. Learn something requiring sustained effort; do something novel. Put down the thriller on the beach and read something about a new theory. Take a new route to work or your house, vacation at an unknown spot, and take your sweet time about it.”

Learning new things as we age may open us to enjoying doing so and savoring our new learning and accomplishments, rather than feeling anxiety that time is passing so quickly that “I have to do everything yesterday.” It can be an urgency that may energize us, but also can immobilize us. It’s easy to lose perspective and feel sad that time is passing so quickly and “I won’t be here to do or see such and such.”

Through a philosophy of life-long learning we can actually slow down our perception of the fast pace of time, keep our brain stimulated and functioning well. We can enjoy the approaching years rather than dreading their passing so quickly that we go through the motions of doing new things – but perhaps not enjoying them and merely trying to fend off “the grim reaper.” We really do need to stop and savor the moment, but also, in an active way, up our learning curve and perhaps, by doing new things, actually control some of this “cognitive illusion/ distortion” about the passage of time.

Dr. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical Center

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