Like many things, this will require some patience to get through.
August 3, 2015 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Why Time Flies: A visualization by Maximilian Kiener of philosopher Paul Janet's theory of why time seems to pass more quickly as one gets older. As Wonkblog explains it, The apparent length of a period of time is proportional to our life span itself.
posted by Cash4Lead (26 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever

[Suggested theme song for this FPP]
posted by Halo in reverse at 8:09 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I thought this was sorta... given? Common knowledge? Assumed by most people?

My own personal view is that we are all experiencing a reliving of our own lives replaying before our own deaths, including our replay of our lives at the end in an endless loop/hierarchy of memory. This explains deja vue. When we start to die in another memory, we kick in the memory of life. Time is compressed, like in a black hole. So it asymptotically approaches the end, but never hits it.

(OK, not really my personal view, so much as ... weird ass theory that I cam up with while high one day).
posted by symbioid at 8:19 AM on August 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

I feel like the important thing about this isn't the visualization or the stoner philosophizing, it's the interactivity. Scrolling the mouse wheel once maps onto a perceptually consistent amount of time, and that moves you through larger and larger periods of actual time. I feel like it would have been better if the year-length segments didn't get smaller but went by faster, as that's the whole point anyway, right?
posted by Nomiconic at 8:23 AM on August 3, 2015

This did two things to me:

1) Depressed the shit out of me
2) Gave me a flashback to ten years ago when I was looking at endless paint chips to decide what color to paint the living room.
posted by bondcliff at 8:27 AM on August 3, 2015 [7 favorites]

I think I first read about this idea c. 2001 on the venerable, which in turn was derived from a 1983 article in the Journal of Irreproducible Results. Not the finest pedigree for a theory, and Paul Janet definitely predates it. I can't see the entire article, so I can't say whether T.L. Freeman cited Janet or not.
posted by jedicus at 8:27 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is it Paul Jan-IT or Paul Jan-AYY?

It's this kind of stuff that really chews up the years.
posted by notyou at 8:44 AM on August 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

I remember my parents complaining about this effect and now here I am in my fifties watching the years wiz by. Sucks.
posted by octothorpe at 8:53 AM on August 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

"It is familiarity with life that makes time speed quickly. When every day is a step into the unknown, as for children, the days are long with the gathering of experience."

- George Gissing
posted by weston at 8:59 AM on August 3, 2015 [17 favorites]

In other words, at some point, you reach the SSDD tipping-point, and that's when it all starts speeding up.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:08 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is this site designed for mobile users only? I felt like i was going to break my scroll wheel trying to get it to work.
posted by demiurge at 9:08 AM on August 3, 2015

(OK, not really my personal view, so much as ... weird ass theory that I cam up with while high one day).

The Stoics believed that the earth would eventually dissolve into fire. However, the fire would then congeal, eventually recreating the earth. Since the universe runs in the best possible course, all the successive universes are exactly the same. I find this very depressing, but the Stoics liked it.

As theories go, it's no Swerve or damned Neoplatonic nonsense.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:15 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Boiler: Didn't he tell us this story four years ago?
Doolittle: No, I think it was four years ago.
posted by Herodios at 9:29 AM on August 3, 2015

Love that Gissing quote. Apropos, a good corrective to the illusion of time passing more quickly is to narrow your view down to the present moment, to become acutely aware of what is happening right now, to see it with "new eyes" (like a child). Strip away the accretion of experience that thinks it already knows. Make "every day...a step into the unknown" by giving attention to the mundane. Instead of trying to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of each second, indulge yourself as if time were not a precious resource at all -- as if you had all the time in the world to appreciate the miracle of, say, the glass of water on your desk.

Of course, if you actually do this, chances are (if you're at all like me) an inner voice will immediately rise up in rebellion. "What the hell are you doing looking at a glass of water?!" It will say. "We already know what that is! It's a GLASS OF WATER, MORON! Move on! We need to GET STUFF DONE SO WE CAN BE HAPPY IN THE FUTURE." It's this voice that makes it seem like time is racing by. And of course, the longer you live, the more the voice panics, and the more it seems like time is precious and can't be wasted and we need to get things done and there's NO TIME!!! I think this has at least as much to do with it as the idea of proportionality.
posted by haricotvert at 9:52 AM on August 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

If you want a year to slow down you need to do different things, make new friends and take up new hobbies. Don't let your life become rote.
posted by any major dude at 10:08 AM on August 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

Of course, if you actually do this, chances are (if you're at all like me) an inner voice will immediately rise up in rebellion. "What the hell are you doing looking at a glass of water?!" It will say. "We already know what that is! It's a GLASS OF WATER, MORON! Move on! We need to GET STUFF DONE SO WE CAN BE HAPPY IN THE FUTURE."

This is why people smoke weed.
posted by glhaynes at 10:20 AM on August 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

any major dude: "If you want a year to slow down you need to do different things, make new friends and take up new hobbies. Don't let your life become rote."

I do all that and time still zooms past me. Life's not boring but still zippy.
posted by octothorpe at 11:23 AM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I do all that and time still zooms past me. Life's not boring but still zippy.

stop doing them and you will hit warp speed. I know because I stopped for the last 3 er 5 years.
posted by any major dude at 11:51 AM on August 3, 2015

I agree with the Gissing quote. I think it's only in retrospect that time seems to have passed quickly. That is, when you are an older person, you might think about something which happened one year ago and, when trying to mentally "date" the memory, may be inclined to give it a date less than one year in the past, from your estimate of how much has happened since. But I think this estimate depends on your brain counting how many more recent memories it has. And I don't know about you, but these days, I tend to forget about 90% of my everyday experiences, if not more (because they aren't novel and therefore aren't worth remembering). If I therefore call to mind an event which happened a year ago, the fact that I don't have many memories from the intervening year may make it seem to me that the year has gone by particularly quickly. It hasn't though, it's just a trick of memory. When I was a child calling to mind something which happened a year ago, I would have so many memories from the intervening time (since my brain was storing as many as possible), that the year would seem in retrospect to have lasted a considerable time.
posted by rubber duck at 12:26 PM on August 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Having kids seems to have an odd bifurcated effect on this experience: to a degree, you see the world anew through your child's eyes. That and the early sleep deprivation make infancy drag. Then there is so much to learn, and you're attached all the time. Then they go to kindergarten, you blink, and damn they're in high school. The whole thing speeds up again, and you're like "why is my back going out and my IRA so small?" Sigh.
posted by rikschell at 1:30 PM on August 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Isn't this kind of like Weber's law for the perception of time?
...the just-noticeable difference between two stimuli is proportional to the magnitude of the stimuli, (and the subject's sensitivity), i.e. if you sense a change in weight of .5 lbs on a 5 pound dumbbell, you ought to feel the extra pound added to a ten pound dumbbell.[2]
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:19 PM on August 3, 2015

The proportionality theory is mostly wrong, the familiarity/novelty/memory theory is mostly right.

If the proportionality theory were mostly right, then we'd see the subjective experience changing uniformly and across all scales relative to age. But that's not true -- it's a good first approximation for entire lifetimes, but at short (days, weeks) and medium (months, a year or two) timescales most people experience variation that sometimes disproportionately accelerates or reverses that overall trend. If it were merely and simply about proportionality, then that wouldn't be the case.

If you carefully consider the subjective experience of the rate of time passing, you'll immediately notice that there's a strong and inverted distinction between the contemporaneous and recollected experiences. That, too, argues against the proportionality theory because proportionality is the same both contemporaneously and in recollection, but the two subjective experiences are actually contradictory -- in recollection, a period with a lot of interest, novelty, and experience will seem to have passed relatively slowly while, contemporaneously, it will have seemed to pass quickly. When we are bored, time passes slowly in our contemporaneous experience, but when recalling a very boring period later, it will seem like we jumped right from the beginning to the end of it (because very little happened). Tedium makes time pass slowly as it happens, but in recollection it makes it more likely to feel as if it slipped away.

This isn't about proportionality and age, rather it's essentially about the creation of memory -- and the creation of memory, in turn, is coupled very strongly to novelty. As we age, less and less is novel, and so most of what we recall becomes more and more built from abstractions from similar experiences. Our memory of recent times (the last five years, say) becomes more and more likely to consist of schematic reconstructions such as "I worked every week, then went on a vacation in the summer" and so on. We can pull up some detail to texture specific portions of those recalled times, but the buik of what we remember is essentially synthetic, built from off-the-shelf parts.

However, it's entirely possible at any stage of life to be thrust into a long string of novel experiences -- moving to a foreign country, for example. If you do that for the first time at the age of 60, while your preceding fifteen years may have seemed to have rapidly passed, it's quite likely that you'll later recall your first months or year or two in that foreign country as not having passed nearly so quickly. And that's because the novelty means that a large portion of your memories of that period will not be that sort of synthesis from abstractions of many prior similar experiences -- they'll be more integral.

The unit of subjective time is the unit of recollection. This is true both contemporaneously and in retrospect. The variability of the subjective "speed" of the passage of time is a function of memory density.

Thus, when we are bored, we will idle in a self-referential analysis of our own subjective experience -- this is a form of memory recycling, an idle state of a sort of null memory that we re-experience. As we do this, we're ticking that clock of experiencing a recollection (though it's a recollection of the very recent past, a repeated analysis that nothing interesting has been happening). Those "ticks" signify the experience of time passing, though filled with nothing. It seems to pass slowly because there's a lot of those ticks fit within a relatively small period of objective time (for a lot of "ticks").

Conversely, when we are not bored but rather very interested, then we don't fall into the self-referential state of continually re-evaluating our memory of the very recent past -- we're too busy with the cognition of the experiences we're having and forming new memories, but not immediately recollecting them. So, time seems to pass quickly contemporaneously.

However, when we later recollect those periods when we were bored, those ticks don't end up counting at all. They're reduced to a single unit of "nothing happened". And so in recollection, that single abstracted unit of "nothing happened" is fit within a relatively large period of objective time (for only one "tick").

Conversely, when we're not bored but very interested, then all those ticks count, especially when they are genuinely novel experiences.

These two pairs of examples demonstrate what's happening on short timescales, but it's all true for longer timescales. For the longer periods, we may not think that, say, we've been bored for the last six months (though some of us might feel that way), but the overall subjective experiences will follow the same pattern -- periods of a lot of familiarity will feel slow at the time but fast when later recollected, while period of a lot of novelty will feel quick at the time but slow when recollected. ("Slow" in the sense opposite that of the previous: "I saw and experienced all those things in only three months??")

If you don't want your life to pass you quickly by as you age, then you need to continue to experience new things. To be sure, for many of us that's much easier said that done.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:24 PM on August 3, 2015 [10 favorites]

That's a terrific description of the subjective experience of time, Ivan. I'd love to know if it's based on any sources that you would recommend for further reading. I've been banging my head against the "problem" of time for a long...uh...time Or at any rate, so it seems to me in the timeless present which is all I ever experience, if I'm honest. It's a fascinating topic. Seems like the more you learn about time, the less you know.
posted by haricotvert at 9:14 AM on August 4, 2015

The proportionality theory is mostly wrong, the familiarity/novelty/memory theory is mostly right.

Interestingly, the latter could lead to the former if events occur stochastically. As time passes, novel events would become rarer as a function of the time that has passed. It would be an interesting problem to determine what the distribution of event types would need to be to produce inverse proportionality, but I don't really have the time to derive that right now.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:17 AM on August 4, 2015

Ah, but the novelty of an event is not an objectively determinable characteristic of the event to which a probability could be ascribed. As I sort of pointed out in my earlier post, it has to do, not with the content of the event, but the quality of attention given to the event. When an event has fewer or no analogues in experience, our tendency is to bring an open, immediate attention to it, the kind we equate with novelty. But it is quite possible to bring that same form of attention to something that under ordinary circumstances we would gloss over as "already experienced," to see it with new eyes, and thus seed consciousness with bursts of novelty, pretty much any time and as often as we like. Which would rule out inverse proportionality in any individual case, although I suppose if your sample was humanity at its current level of consciousness, it would probably hold in practice.
posted by haricotvert at 10:38 AM on August 4, 2015

If you want a year to slow down you need to do different things, make new friends and take up new hobbies. Don't let your life become rote.


Getting off the Internet seems to help me a ton. Weekends go much more slowly and leisurely pleasurable for me when reading and going for walks instead of watching YouTube and browsing the web. Not to mention restorative.

Entire weeks, months, and years can disappear online without a trace.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:39 AM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's how to combat the feeling of the fleetness of time (even without resorting to novel experiences to generate colorful new memories): Keep a journal. Write a page maybe every week or so, describing what you did, how you felt, what you thought.

When you get to feel that time is passing very quickly, go back and read your journal. The illusion of time passing by is tied to the how much you remember and as pointed out above, as novelty decreases so does memory. When you read your journal though, even mundane activities are brought back to life again. You relive those moments, you free up your lived life from the frozen forgotten archive of your past.
posted by storybored at 2:02 PM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

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