When you are young, time often passes quite slowly. Each birthday is a monumental occasion. Long lazy summers seem to never end. We remember trying to make the clock hands move faster with our minds as we sat bored in class. But as we grow older, life seems to speed up. Birthdays aren’t as big a deal. You’d almost rather not even notice them as you feel like you're barreling towards old age. Why does it feel like this? Is time really moving faster somehow?

A research team from the University of Kansas ran a study to understand this phenomenon. They tested the theory, first proposed by philosopher Douglas Hofstadter, that time appears to speed up because we start grouping distinct individual experiences into larger “chunks”. When we are young we have many big moments, experiencing things for the first time. So going to a park could be quite a big deal, with many memorable sensations there. But as you grow older, going to that park offers fewer and fewer new experiences. You start collapsing them into memory “chunks,” putting everything that happened simply under “a walk in the park” - making the span of time feel brief.

The study involved 107 volunteers who were asked to compare how events of the past year measured up to events of other years. This encouraged them to chunk their experiences. They also could have written how events could have turned out differently - going against the chunking impulse. The chunking group found their previous year passed quicker than the calendar year while the other “no chunking” cohort did not feel that way.

The researchers also asked 115 undergraduates to reflect on different daily activities either over the past day or the past year. Those who chose to chunk the past year felt it had passed faster than those who chunked the previous day. 

“Like a ball rolling down a hill, time often seems to pick up momentum, going faster and faster as we get older, “ write the authors. “Perceiving life as rapidly slipping away is psychologically harmful: unpleasant, demotivating, and possibly even hostile to the sense that life is meaningful.”

The scientists think that chunking experiences can cause an erosion of life’s meaning as it deprives memories of evocative details. The people who do this more often find important a sense of nostalgia for the time passed, discovered the scientists.

Is there a way to counteract this practice as we naturally tend to chunk many experiences in our adult lives? The researchers suggest mindfulness. Living “in the moment” can allow you to appreciate those moments fully, creating rich memories. Meditation and making art can also be helpful. The authors write that “these experiences have the potential to re-sensitise us to the satisfaction of simple things and, perhaps, counteract life’s quickening pace”.

You can read the paper here, in Self and Identity.