Remember when you were a child, summer vacation never seemed to end? Or when every day seemed like Christmas? And now think about life as an adult, especially in one’s later years: The days and years seem to be slipping out of your hand. There’s never enough time for everything you need to, want to, do. You become like the bookworm in that old “Twilight Zone” episode: There’s never enough time. It turns out there might be a fascinating scientific answer to this, and it’s a result of how we perceive and interpret experiences.
Research done at the University of Munich has revealed that we perceive memory through two vantage points: prospective and retrospective. The participants in the study ranged from early teens to their late nineties, and were asked how they perceived time lengths, ranging from the short (months to years) to long (decades). For the most part, the participants said time went by too fast. But a pattern emerged from the older demographic: Time moved exceptionally fast, especially when asked to compare it to their early years.
This is due to the two ways we experience life: prospective, while events are happening, and retrospective, in hindsight. While we are younger, we have greater odds of experiencing new things in life: new people to meet, more exotic places to visit, new hallmarks in life, from graduation to first love. In other words, more stuff happens to us when we’re younger, and we are given less time to reflect. We simply “are”. Time moves faster when the brain is asked to constantly process new stimuli.
As we get older, life begins to settle down. We have families, and our lives become more orderly, more predictable. Opportunities for new experiences come less often. We begin to take a retrospective view to our lives. Some people call it nostalgia, or sentimentality. But science tells us that a fondness for one’s past is due to the brain’s tendency to remember the highlights of our past more than the mundane details, so when we’re asked to recall them, these memories will seem to have lasted longer than they really did. The result is that our youthful years of new experiences feels stretched out and to have lasted longer, while our current, more routine days, are filled with activities and responsibilities that never seem to have enough time to complete.
This is valuable knowledge for anyone looking to keep some of that youthful vigor. We needn’t succumb to the stagnation of nostalgia. The key to continue to create new, vigorous memories by continuing to have stimulation in our lives. This can take the form of being adventurous in your travels, or returning to school to learn a new subject, or simply getting out and joining an exercise group or volunteering and meeting new people.
It is always important to remember that state of being “are”. There’s no reason the eternal summer should only exist in your memory.