I remember Christmas Day as torture.
My younger brother and I would roll around in agony, impatient to open the pile of presents under the tree. My parents would take “forever” to get out of bed, have breakfast, and get ready for Christmas Day. My older brothers would joke that we’d open the presents after lunch – after lunch may as well have been on another planet to us.
But now with the big day around the corner again, I can’t believe how quickly the year has gone. So what’s changed? Why was my childhood perception of time passing, so different from now?
According to psychology researcher Professor Simon Dennis, the most convincing theory of why time speeds up as we grow older has to do with the fact that our brains simply become more efficient at focusing on what matters…and virtually skipping what doesn’t. Life becomes more routine and we just don’t notice what fascinated us as children.
“In a strange way, what is happening is that children and adults just aren’t in the same time stream,” says Professor Dennis, who heads up the Complex Human Data hub at the University of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences.
“For really young children there isn’t even that sense of time passing. Waiting is simply endless. Time isn’t even a concept, it is just what is happening now.”
Before the age of three or four, a child has little capacity to frame the episodic memories that are necessary to provide a sense of time. It is why we suffer “childhood amnesia” in which we remember only vague sensations from our early years, rather than specific incidents.
The seat of memory is the hippocampus, which before the age of two to four is still developing. Children also need to develop language in order to think effectively about time passing.
But even when kids do start to form episodic memories and learn language, their memories tend to be linked to experiences. They don’t understand the structures of time that we use when we are older, such as morning and afternoon, the days of the week, and the months of the year.
Again, it means they don’t have the same grasp of time as adults do, meaning it can seem endless because they don’t know when tomorrow or next week is.
“The cognitive abilities of children are developing and so the way they represent memories in their head is developing. It means that if they go to an event they will code, or remember, a sensation or experience, rather than say the day of the week.
“When you ask them what they did yesterday they won’t be able to tell you because they haven’t coded it as yesterday. But they will remember it if you can link it to the experience that they have coded.”
Modelling language learning
Professor Dennis says adults seem to know this implicitly about children and in seeking to prompt children to recall past events they will focus on recalling unique experiences.
Transcripts of child-adult recordings stored in a massive US data-base going back to the 1960s – Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES) – show exactly this. A child won’t recall visiting a relative last Thursday on Halloween, but they will remember it when asked about making pumpkin heads.
The CHILDES transcripts are the raw data that Professor Dennis and his colleagues are using in their ongoing research into understanding how children acquire languages by using algorithms and statistics to build computer models of learning.
But while children only gradually begin to understand time as their memory develops, Professor Dennis says adults have gone a step further with their memories and are actually compressing time.
The dominant theory explaining this comes from UK psychological researcher Professor Martin Conway’s work on autobiographical memorythat suggests that over time we bind together routine events rather than remembering them as distinct episodes.
For example, Professor Dennis says that if you ask someone what they had for breakfast last Tuesday, they won’t necessarily remember that breakfast experience, but they will answer the question based on their knowledge of what they usually have for breakfast.
“It is a very efficient way to do things because you are able to have an educated guess about a routine event instead of needing all that episodic memory, but it means that for an adult these events are all bound up into effectively just one event.
“And the older you become the more you build these routines, but for children these events are all still taking up their attention, and therefore their time.
“It helps explain why for children it feels like there is always so much happening all the time, whereas for adults that time that the kids are experiencing just isn’t happening for them. Every breakfast or every shower just becomes one general breakfast or one general shower like all the others.”
Time and holidays
So, as an adult, can you actually slow down time? According to Professor Dennis, we all need to go on holiday.
“It makes sense that if you go on holidays to a new place you will put yourself back into the experience of a child and suddenly everything isn’t so routine. You will see and remember things in a new way. I don’t have experimental evidence for this, but I suspect is it true that people do perceive time to be passing more slowly when on holiday because all that routine is gone.”
Thank goodness then for Christmas – maybe things might slow down for a bit. Let’s break up the routine and open the presents early.