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As Time Goes By

. . . it flies! That's an accepted phenomenon, even though no one's studied it. Still, there are theories why hours whiz by when we hit adulthood.


You're at the office, grinding away. Your desk is creaking under the weight of the stuff piled in your "in" box. The "while you were out" slips cover your blotter like a pink carpet--and you haven't even been out. You glance anxiously at the clock every couple of minutes and are shocked to discover that some diabolical fiend has moved the hands ahead another two hours each time. The big project is due in a week. That week might as well be a minute.

Meanwhile, your kid is at recess. He's charging around at top speed, performing various kid recess tasks. He doesn't wear a watch. He doesn't know where the nearest clock is and doesn't care. He's not sure how long recess lasts--five minutes, five hours? But it's a whole week until school lets out for the summer, and he knows that's forever. That week will last an eternity.

Time flies. But, as any fully grown former child can tell you, its air speed varies. Einstein explained relativity by comparing the perceived time of a man sitting with a pretty girl for an hour (seems like a minute) and that same man sitting on a hot stove for a minute (longer than any hour). But, say psychologists and specialists on aging, he might have done as well to explain his famous theory using the relative time perceptions of adults of different ages versus children.

Parents need to understand the way their children experience time to understand their behavior, and it is helpful to know that elderly relatives also experience time differently than a busy middle-aged person.

That difference "is an interesting phenomenon and it's a real phenomenon," said Elizabeth Zelinski, associate professor of gerontology and psychology at USC. "It does seem like time goes faster as we age. It kicks in in about our 20s or 30s as people begin to get very busy. They're out of school and having a life and they're occupied and events are happening in close frequency with each other. You have more responsibilities and more goals that you have to accomplish in a given day than you would if you were a kid in school."


That we think of time as accelerating as we age is regarded by most people as a given, say researchers. But, they add, as real as the phenomenon may appear, they know of no formal studies that have been done to quantify it.

"I think everybody agrees on it, though," said Timothy Salthouse, professor of psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the editor of a journal on psychology and aging. "One possible interpretation of it is that as we get older, we've had more cumulative time behind us, and every interval of time is a smaller part of the total amount of time we've experienced. We judge it as a smaller proportion of the time we've already lived. When we're older, a time interval has to be greater to be perceived as being of the same relative duration as a shorter period of time when we're younger."

A kind of fatalistic mathematics may take over our subconscious minds as we age, Salthouse said.

"What you might expect at some period as a person gets older is that they start calibrating their time not from their birth to the present, but from the present until their anticipated death," he said.

Children, however, may not calibrate time at all, simply because they don't yet know how.

"Learning measurements of time is developmental," said Andrew Schwartz, a Laguna Hills clinical psychologist who specializes in children. "If you ask a small child to recall certain events, he or she may not be able to give an accurate time frame. The ability to assess time is still developing during the early years."


A parallel development that bears on the perception of the passage of time, Schwartz said, is a child's ability to delay gratification. At a young age, he said, being hungry or thirsty or wanting a particular toy can take on an immediate urgency "and parents may try to satisfy the yearning quickly so the child calms. At a very young age, the passage of short intervals of time seem to be more significant than at an older age."

Children take a large step away from an infantile perception of time when they learn skills that allow them to delay gratification, Schwartz said.

Being thoroughly absorbed in performing a task--or being thoroughly bored by it--probably also affects how both children and adults experience time. Young students may sit through a class they find uninteresting and think it impossibly dreary and interminable, while an adult who finds a class riveting may think that it ends far too soon, said Louis Gottschalk, founding chair of the department of psychiatry and human behavior at UC Irvine.

"For instance," he said, "I can get involved with my word processor and an hour passes and it doesn't seem nearly that long. It's a function of how intensely one is preoccupied with something." Gottschalk said he also subscribes to the theory that the perception of time is affected directly by how long one has lived. He added, however, that there may in some cases be biological causes.

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