The pace of life: a crazy idea for an experiment

September 30, 2011 • 5:13 am

“The pace of life” was the title of a 1976 paper in Nature in which Marc and Helen Bornstein did something very simple: they went to 15 cities in Europe, Asia, and North America, and simply measured the rate of walking of unwitting subjects over a marked, 50-foot stretch of pavement on sunny days of moderate temperature.  What they found is summarized in this graph from their paper, which shows that people from larger cities walk significantly faster.  There was a threefold difference between the smallest and largest towns!

Their interpretation, which they based on the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram, was a bit dicey: they suggested that larger towns overload the mental processing ability of their inhabitants, and so the people simply walk faster in bigger towns “to minimize environmental stimulation.”  There are, of course, other interpretations—I’m sure you can think of a few.  (Rushing to and from work over larger distances is one.)

Regardless, this was one of those crazy but appealing ideas that we scientists get sometimes, and testing it did point to something interesting.  I’m sure, though, that these results would no longer be publishable in Nature.

This is by way of introducing another crazy idea I had a while back, and have been chewing over for some time.  It’s also about “the pace of life,” but about the pace of our entire lives.  If you’ve lived a substantial time, as I have, you may have noticed that the seasons and years seem to be passing more quickly than when you were younger.  This summer, for instance, seems to me to have vanished in a flash.  And I’ve noticed this more strongly as I’ve gotten older.

So I made a hypothesis: one sees the passage of time in relation to the length of one’s past life.  The duration of each moment is weighed in relation to how many moments have gone before, and so seems more fleeting when you’ve experienced more moments.  And that’s why, for older people, time seems to pass more quickly.  An alternative hypothesis is that as one gets closer to the close of one’s life, one senses “time’s wingèd chariot” more prominently, so time seems to pass more quickly because you don’t have as much left.  (I call this the Raitt Hypothesis after Bonnie Raitt’s song, “Nick of Time,” which includes this lyric: “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.”)

Both of these theories, however, predict that as one gets older, one’s perception of time becomes compressed.

I realize that this is just a dumb idea, but it’s eminently testable. Here’s my experiment:  take a number of people of different ages, put them in a room, and ask them to tell you when an hour has passed.  Of course, you can’t let them count (that’s why I suggest an hour rather than a minute), and perhaps there should be some distraction so that people are doing quotidian tasks when asked to judge the time elapsed.  My hypothesis would predict that older people would  think that an hour had gone by after a shorter time than younger people; in other words, there would be a negative correlation between age and actual time elapsed.

I’m not aware that anyone has done such an experiment, though it’s an obvious idea, and maybe the notion is flawed, but surely a significant correlation (either positive or negative) would mean something.  If anything has been published on it—because, of course, I’ll never actually do this experiment—let me know.

Does this sound totally off the wall?

Just to round out this post, here’s an apposite song from 1966:  “Time,” by the Pozo Seco singers. It was their only hit, but it was popular in the U.S.  If you remember this, you’re old enough to have noticed how time seems to be passing faster.

95 thoughts on “The pace of life: a crazy idea for an experiment

  1. So I made a hypothesis: one sees the passage of time in relation to the duration of one’s past life. The duration of each moment is weighed in relation to how many moments have gone before, and seems faster that more moments you’ve had.

    Ouch. I hate to tell you this, but I learned this when I was six. When I over-heard my dad and one of his fellow medical school students talking about the perception of time.

    So, you’re on the right track about the pyschology of the perception of time. But it’s old hat and was being taught in medical school at least forty-four years ago.

    1. Same here – in my 27 years I’ve noticed the minutes, hours, days, months and years get considerably shorter.

      In the UK we have long Summer holidays for schoolkids – 6 weeks. I remember my first, during which I turned 5, and by the end of it I’d pretty much forgotten my first year of school altogether and had more-or-less assumed I was never going back. Wishful thinking (to a five-year-old at least)!

      I always thought of it as seeing a moment in time as a proportion of total time spent existing.

    2. I never found this (time moving faster as you get older) to be true. I remember having a conversation on this subject with adults around age 12, and later in high school, and I said then (as now) that time already seemed to go by pretty fast. Summers and entire years passed by in a blink. So, for me, I don’t think time has sped up at all.

      I may just be the odd one out, or it may also be that your memory of past perception of time changes as you age. Perhaps time seemed to pass plenty fast when you were a kid, but you just don’t remember it that way.

  2. There was some research a few years ago that showed that the perception of time passage does change as you get older. The researchers asked people of varying ages to estimate when 60 seconds had passed and the older you were, the more quickly a minute seemed to pass.

    1. I think a minute is too short a time because one can count. That’s not an accurate simulation of how we actually judge the passage of time.

      1. “I think a minute is too short a time because one can count. ”

        Perhaps, but that still relies on one’s perception of how long a second lasts. As for whether or not it’s an accurate simulation about how we judge time, that would need to be demonstrated. This result is certainly consistent with how we judge time on the larger scale.

        1. In my 8th grade science class (on the order of two dozen years ago now), we were broken up into pairs where one would count 60 seconds, and the other would watch the clock (then vice versa). I got it perfectly, but almost everyone else was off by some amount, positive and negative.

          Using a minute just shows how off a person’s notion of a second is, which I don’t think can be reasonably correlated with age at all.

          1. Alternate mypothesis: photons put on a little mass as they get older and turn into neutrinos and have to jog it off

  3. When I was about ten or twelve, the July-August holidays seemed endless. Now my grandkids visit for the same period and it goes by in a flash. They however think it was a really long vacation with Nanny and Grandpa.
    Are you suggesting we try and quantify that?

  4. 10 Ways Our Minds Warp Time

    7. Does time speed up with age?

    People often say the years pass more quickly as they get older. While youthful summers seemed to stretch on into infinity, the summers of your later years zip by in the blink of an eye.

    A common explanation for this is that everything is new when we are young so we pay more attention; consequently it feels like time expands. With age, though, new experiences diminish and it tends to be more of the same, so time seems to pass more quickly.

    Whether or not this is true, there is some psychological evidence that time passes quicker for older people. One study has found that people in their 20s are pretty accurate at guessing an interval of 3 minutes, but people in their 60s systematically overestimate it, suggesting time is passing about 20% more quickly for them (Mangan & Bolinsky, 1997)

    I haven’t tracked down the Mangan & Bolinsky paper

    1. That’s the same concept. Memories control the perception of time.

      Conceptualizing memory as ‘slices,’ it’s the density of slices per time period that we use to determine our time sense of events.

      Therefore, the older you get, the less novelty of any situation, the great the ability to tune-out ‘sameness’ and not need to make a memory you end up with greater time intervals between ‘memory slices’ and, thus, less memory per actual time interval.

      It’s this less memory per interval we’re measuring with. Since we old people have fewer ‘boring’ memories (as well as fewer memories) with which to remember, we’re (mentally) passing through time faster.

      1. I don’t think it’s quite the same concept. Yes, memories control the perception of time. But, per my reply below, I think there’d be a discernible difference for people of the same age who had different degrees of novelty in their lives.


    2. My hypothesis would predict that older people would think that an hour had gone by after a shorter time than younger people; in other words, there would be a negative correlation between age and actual time elapsed.

      I think it’s the other way, as suggested by Mangan and Bolinsky (1997). If a summer (3 months) appears to end very quickly, that suggests a person without a way to confirm the passage of time would think summer is still happening after 4 or 5 months. If this response is linear, then we would expect older people to state that an hour had passed only after some time longer than an hour had actually elapsed.

      Think of a small child: Five minutes is an eternity, tell her she can have a cookie in 5 minutes and you’ll be asked if it is yet time after 30 seconds.

      That said, I think this is probably real. Perceiving time as a proportion of what has already been perceived seems like a reasonable way to calibrate one’s sense of time.

      Regarding pace-of-life and cities: could the direction of causation be the other way? People who walk fast / live fast tend to move to big cities where they don’t get frustrated waiting for the slow-paced yokel to make up his damn mind at the burger counter. Slower people decide big cities are not for them, and end up in smaller centres.

  5. See: Douwe Draaisma, Arnold Pomerans and Erica Pomerans (2006) “Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes our Past”.

    And a suggestion about the reason why people walk faster in big cities: maybe because the distances are longer in bigger cities ?

      1. One of the chapter of Draaisma’s book describes a German couple who took a single photograph of themselves every year at Christmas. The book shows a series of these, running from a young couple to a very elderly couple. They’re fascinating, but also a bit sad, too — the fleetingness of time indeed.

    1. I will assert that the distances people walk in a bigger (sc. “more populous”) city are not too different from those they walk in a smaller, less populous place.

      Just consider why people walk: from the subway or bus to the office, from the office to lunch and back, and back to the subway at the end of the day. In a city like New York, it seems like there’s a subway station or lunch counter every fifty feet, so the distances walked may even be less than in, e.g. New Haven.

      1. Agreed. There are too many variables to say with certainty that people walk larger distances in larger cities.

        In fact, I live in a fairly large city, but am constantly bemoaning the consummate “mosiers” getting in my way and keeping me from walking at the pace I’d prefer.

      2. Yes if it were the distances needing to be covered then it should be correlated with the physical size of the city, rather than the population.

  6. Does this sound totally off the wall?

    Yeah, pretty much! 😀

    My hypothesis would predict that older people would think that an hour had gone by after a shorter time than younger people…

    Yes, but there are possibly other hypotheses that would give a similar result. And you suggested two hypotheses in the first place: How would this distinguish between them?

    Nor am I sure that your hypothesis would necessarily predict this. I think there’s the possibility that an-hour-goes-by might be much less affected by age than weeks-go-by.

    My alternative hypothesis. It’s not age in and of itself, but novelty. For most people, even intellectually stimulated biology professors, there’re typically fewer new experiences as the years go by, less to distinguish one week, month, year from the next.

    So, I’d expect to see a loose correlation with age, but a closer correlation with the variety in people’s lives (although I’m not sure what the metric for that is).


    PS. I’m fifty.

    1. I’ll go along with the reducing novelty idea. I conjecture that when time is filled with events which are less memorable (because they are no longer novel) there are fewer strong memories. Fewer strong memories mean that there is less to distinguish in the passage of time, so the past seems closer rather than the time shorter.

      I can still time cooking events (10/20/30 minutes) pretty accurately, and can usually tell the time of day reasonably well with out a watch. But ask me what we had for dinner a fortnight ago – it’s all a blur unless it was something really special.

      What we need to do is run some experiments on people coming out of long periods of exclusion (hermits, priests, convicts) and see if their feeling for the passage of time changes…

    2. From the comfort of my armchair I’d agree that the inverse relationship between novelty and age contributes to our sense of “accelerating time.” I think this probably works in tandem with the fact that responsibilities tend to increase with age, as R. Romanivich notes below. Not only do we need to cram more activity into an hour, but we’re probably thinking ahead, about things we have yet to accomplish and need to get to, more than we did in our youth.

      But I’m not sure these technically age-independent explanations exclude Jerry’s idea that as we age, a given chunk of time will seem smaller than it would have to our younger selves because it represents a smaller fraction of our total time alive.

  7. I think you’d be measuring the wrong thing.

    Since becoming a parent, I’ve found that while the months and years now seem to have abruptly gotten even shorter (and they were already shortening), often the days and weeks feel longer. Not sure how this would affect perception of an hour.

    It would still be an interesting experiment, even if I think it’s not necessarily measuring the same perception as in your hypothesis!

    1. I agree. It’s not obvious that duration perceptions should map consistently across a range of scales, ie. we may use qualitatively different yardsticks for minutes-to-hours than for weeks-to-months. Bear in mind also that anything longer than 24 hours will usually be broken by a sleep period, which probably resets the subjective clock in some way.

      I find that my subjective time-sense is affected by what’s going on. A one or two-week vacation during which I do something new and interesting every day seems fairly long both at the time, and in retrospect — much longer than the humdrum week or so of work that follows it, in which nothing remarkable happens (this is a Good Thing!). I can give a day-by-day (maybe even more fine-grained) enumeration of our last several vacations, whereas I have no idea what I was doing at work this time last week. As someone else has said on this thread: novelty.

  8. As a child we went on holiday to a hot country for 3 weeks ever year. The flights from the UK were every Thursday, and once per week we saw an influx of people who were not only white but also who all walked fast.

    As the week progressed you could see the average speed at which people walked down the high street would decrease, until Thursday would arrive and then suddenly the average walking speed would increase again.

    I suspect that average walking speed is related to how people perceive their balance of tasks vs how much time they have left to accomplish them.

  9. At 75 can I volunteer to be a point on the right side of the normal curve?

    All expenses paid (by your research grant, of course) to/from Chicago…

  10. That time seems to speed up the older one gets has certainly been my experience (69 years of it). Maybe we all should heed the advice of the 11th-12 century philosopher, Omar Khayyam:

    “The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop
    The leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

    Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend. Before we too into the Dust descend….”

    The Rubaeyat of Omar Khayyam

    1. …and for a dose of humility, Khayyam’s: “A drop of water falls into the ocean wide; a grain of dust becomes with earth allied. What of our life, our works, our fortune or our fame? A flame burned for a while, then invisible became.

    2. And more:

      “Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
      Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
      The Bird of Time has but a little way
      To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.”

      “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
      Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
      Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
      Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.”

  11. “Time flies when your having fun”.

    We’ve all heard that before.

    I think that generally speaking as people age they tend to have busier lives. When I am occupied with a task, time seems to go very quickly. As people age they generally have more responsibilities (i.e., families, careers etc).

    Is the increase in perception of time linear until death, or does it begin to slow down again after a certain point? For example, do people approaching the twilight of their lives still perceive time as “flying-by”?

    Or is the perception of time related to a sense of happiness in ones life? Are older people generally more content with their lives, and therefore happier?

    Boredom certainly slows down the perception of time. Children are often bored, but most adults don’t have time to be.

    1. I tell students that one of the skillsets they need to develope involves being able to entertain oneself. They depend on others to entertain them. Children whaah about being bored and time seems therefore slow.

  12. I’m not sure this experiment would test for what you’re looking for. It’s a measure of how well-calibrated someone’s perception of time is to the length of time, rather than how fast or slow their actual perception is.

    So, even if there was no difference in the perception of time, we might for example expect older peoples’ results to be more variable, as they’re more likely to be retired, and so they need to deal with precise times less often. Or we might expect younger people to estimate precisely, since they were more recently (or still are) in a school or college environment where their day revolves around hour-long periods, so they have a good sense for how long an hour is.

    1. Right. A yardstick seems a lot smaller now than it did when I was a kid, but that doesn’t mean I tend to underestimate distances, because my mental yardstick has shrunk along with it.

  13. I saw an illustration in a book (Time, by Samuel A. Goudsmit, Time-Life Books, Life Science Library) that showed how people of varying ages marked different life events on a line representing their life. The events were things like yesterday, last week, last year, high school graduation, first grade, fifth birthday and so forth. The study showed that the older a person, the more likely the marks represented the proper proportion of time. One explanation that was suggested was that as one ages, a given interval of time occupies a smaller and smaller percentage of one’s total lifetime. The book was first published in 1966, so studies like this have been around for a while. You can find it at the Harold Washington Library under QB209.G6 1969

  14. Not at all to slight Pozo Seco, but for another musical take on Time there’s of course the Chambers Bros. Sadly, I found no videos of the way they opened this one at Atlantic City in ’69, which is forever etched in my mind:

      1. Since we’ve already gone back 40+ yrs, and since cowboy boots show up here too, let’s do another ~couple decades. Fiddle, twin guitars + steel, accordion & trumpet in re. time – who else but Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

  15. Even if your hypothesis is complete crap, this is the joy of speculation – it makes you think. Better than sitting in front of a television (although I do enjoy a break from thinking sometimes).

    But the small town-slow walking and big-town, fast walking stuff…I’ve observed this. I was so stressed when I went to New York this summer . It seemed everywhere I went, I was always in someone’s way, slowing someone down.

    In my small town of residence, people relax a lot more, probably because public transit is extremely inefficient and the only walking people do is from the parking lot, 100 feet to the store. In New York, I walked so much, it was wonderful. If house prices weren’t through the roof, I definitely would want to live somewhere with a subway.

    1. I think it’s likely because the bigger the city the further you walk. I think this is well established. If you have further to walk you tend to walk faster to be able to get it done.

  16. My hypothesis would predict that older people would think that an hour had gone by after a shorter time than younger people; in other words, there would be a negative correlation between age and actual time elapsed.

    Wouldn’t it be the other way around? If time seemed to be moving slowly for a child, then they might think an hour had passed over just 15 real mins (are we there yet?!). Similarly, if someone older feels time slip away faster, then imagine after 2 hours they said “one hour,” and when the truth was revealed, they could say “wow, those 2 hours went by in a flash!”

  17. My lab actually has studies utilizing this type of time estimation, but in the framework of individual differences as opposed to age (though I should trying throwing age into the models). However, we are also looking at “time as a journey” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999) metaphor, as well. Perhaps some sort of manipulation is in order?

  18. Many years ago (<1975) I read a [nonfiction] book about French researchers who went down into a cavern with no light/dark cycle that could cue their circadian rhythms, and their "days" slowly shifted out of sequence with the solar day. Perhaps circadian rhythms change with age, making the apparent day seem shorter?

  19. Small towns are boring.

    If there is nowhere to go, then there is no point in hurrying to get there.

    Think of this in terms of a college campus. Most institutions allow 10 minutes to get from one class to the next. In a small campus, the next class is in the room across the hall. In a large sprawling campus such as U. of C., the next class might be a block away so you have to walk fast to get there in time.

  20. I think there are differences between males & females as well as to how they perceive time –
    see Hancock & Rausch from last year
    The effects of sex, age, and interval duration on the perception of time
    Acta Psychologica
    Volume 133, Issue 2, February 2010, Pages 170-179

    “The present experiment examined the interactive effects of sex, age, and interval duration on individual’s time perception accuracy. Participants engaged in the duration production task and subsequently completed questionnaires designed to elicit their temporal attitudes. The overall group of 100 individuals was divided evenly between the sexes. Five groups, each composed of 10 males and 10 females, were divided by decades of age ranging from 20 to 69 years old. The specific time estimation task was an empty interval production procedure composed of 50 trials on each of four different intervals of 1, 3, 7, and 20 s, respectively. The presentation orders of these intervals were randomized across participants but yoked across the sexes within each of the respective age groups. Analysis of the production results indicated significant influences for the sex of the participant while age did not appear to affect estimates of these short durations. Temporal attitudes, as reflected in responses to time questionnaire inquiries, did however exhibit significant differences across age. The contending theoretical accounts of such sex and age differences are considered and explanatory accounts that present a synthesis of endogenous and exogenous causal factors are discussed in light of the present pattern of findings.”

  21. I read about this years ago. To a five-year-old, one year is 20 percent of her lifespan, but to a fifty-year-old it’s 2 percent.

    Also, from a Lawrence Block novel narrated by an aging gentleman, “The days go by slow, but the years go by fast.”

  22. Perception of time is extremely important in my field (music composition). I must say the perceived length of a piece of music is quite complex. It isn’t just novelty although familiarity with a piece sometimes has an effect, as does active vs. passive listening. A lot has to do with the nature of the music and how much structural information is present at a given time. This doesn’t mean “number of notes per unit of time,” but the more the number and types of structural connections in the music. Beethoven seems to take longer per minute of music on average to me than does Debussy, if I’m actively following the music. I imagine that training is also a factor, such that information that is meaningful to some will not be as meaningful to others. This makes music cognition experiments devilishly difficult to devise.

    I’d be curious, actually, for anyone who has 20 minutes to kill on some music written in the last 50 years —
    Here are similarly-sized excerpts of two very different pieces (I trust both will be novel here). The first seems to take MUCH longer than the second to me when I’m listening intently. I think it’s because of how I hear each one develop — I’d love to know if others hear it the same way.

    Piece #1:

    Piece #2

    1. The phenomenon you describe was noted by no less than Heinrich Schenker. From Der Freie Satz (writing about Handel’s ‘Suite No. 2’):

      Although the short Allegro would seem almost too brief to constitute a main movement, the density of its voice-leading gives musical ears so much to hear that much time seems to elapse in the listening.

      The more information a piece contains, and the more intricately relationships are forged with that information, the more one has to apply moment-to-moment concentration when listening (in order to really appreciate the piece). As snobby as this may sound, I contend that most people stay away from “classical” (little “c”) music and stick to pop because of laziness.

      1. Thanks for the Schenker reference!

        Regarding pop vs. “classical” — it’s lack of training, I think, as much as laziness; it takes a ton of effort AND experience to listen to something like Handel from a Schenkerian perspective. Also, there’s image and other extra-musical factors (e.g. “classical music is elitist”).

        I’m bored by almost the entirety of pop music, although occasionally I’ll find something with sounds that I find interesting, and I am a sucker for a well-constructed song.

        1. No doubt training makes a difference, but I discovered classical as teenager, and immediately took to it (and also about the same time, discovered that “progressive” rock was waaay more interesting than Top-40). And since then, my tastes have changed such that I find “light” classical insipid, but love a Mozart piano sonata.

          And I’m an engineer with no formal musical training beyond high school band class. I think smart people (I can say that in this company without it being like a boast) are naturally attracted to complexity.

        2. You’re right.  “Laziness” is too narrow a term.  What I mean is that many people can’t or don’t want to be bothered to learn how to parse what they’re hearing.  That may be due to true laziness, or it might be because they don’t see the point in expending concentration on music.  Someone once made a comment, either here or on Pharyngula (I don’t recall which), dismissing ALL art as frippery.  :/

          As per Eamon’s comment above, I’m not sure training has very much bearing on whether someone can enjoy “art music.”  Really comprehending it?  That will take training.  But it seems to me that one of the major thrusts of Schenker’s project was explaining why certain musical procedures/phenomena are so satisfying at a visceral level (and, of course, the inverse correlate: why certain superficial gestures are just that – superficial – and don’t achieve the gravitas that well-executed deep structures do).

          I know it’s a wildly unpopular position to take, but I’m convinced there is quite a lot to be gleaned about what constitutes good composition from the objective, physical fact of the overtone series, and how our brains make sense of it.  I only bring this up because I think this is why any brain can find certain musical procedures/phenomena satisfying without knowing the nitty-gritty about what’s going on.  Unfortunately, that subconscious perception is exactly what atonal music undoes

          Now I’ve tipped my hand.  Call me a traditionalist!


          1. But it seems to me that one of the major thrusts of Schenker’s project was explaining why certain musical procedures/phenomena are so satisfying at a visceral level (and, of course, the inverse correlate: why certain superficial gestures are just that – superficial – and don’t achieve the gravitas that well-executed deep structures do).

            There’s a bit of controversy about this. You might be interested (if you aren’t already) by a reconstruction of Schenker along Chomskian cognitive-linguistic lines by Fred Lerdahl (composer/theorist) and Ray Jackendoff (the linguist) in a book called “A Generative Theory of Tonal Music.” I personally do not think it is very successful, mostly because I do not think of Schenker as a model of in-time music perception but instead of a sort of out-of-time structural account that depends upon knowledge of an entire piece (and sometimes of similar pieces). In other words it hinges on the model of time involved in how one conceives and perceives a piece of music, and I think it has a lot more to do with concept than percept.

            I know it’s a wildly unpopular position to take, but I’m convinced there is quite a lot to be gleaned about what constitutes good composition from the objective, physical fact of the overtone series, and how our brains make sense of it. I only bring this up because I think this is why any brain can find certain musical procedures/phenomena satisfying without knowing the nitty-gritty about what’s going on. Unfortunately, that subconscious perception is exactly what atonal music undoes

            This probably isn’t the space for a long discussion about this point, except I would say that the main structural difference between tonal music and atonal music, if I had to boil it down, is that atonal music tends to depend upon group structures, and tonal music tends to rely upon semigroups and hierarchies. There are huge exceptions — it’s not hard to find hierarchical atonal pieces and it’s also not hard to find tonal pieces which function more using closed group structures at distances extremely far removed from any notion of the overtone series. There’s almost no way to connect the overtone series to passages in Wagner’s Parsifal or the early tonal music of Schoenberg or even Ravel and Debussy. Similarly, there is a ton of atonal music which is actually deliberately written using the spectra of sounds (it’s usually called “spectral music” in fact). My favorite spectralist is Gerard Grisey — he has a great, very long piece called “Espaces Acoustiques.”

            It’s always nice to find musicians in these threads! My apologies if I’m telling you stuff you already know…

            1. Oh, I’ve been slow in making my usual plug for Daniel Levitin’s fascinating This Is Your Brain On Music. Classic FM Magazine said, “You’ll never hear music in the same way again.” Which I’m finding is true!

              Btw, I listen to pretty much anything from mainstream pop, to electronica, to swing, to Nordic symphonic metal, to “classical” music (from mediæval music to contemporary stuff such as Sō Percussion). Either I have catholic tastes or I’m indiscriminate!


              1. I have been meaning to take a look at that book. I’ve admired some of his articles in the past. I will say I think the music cognition field seems to have been much more preoccupied with the question “How do we hear music” than with “how do we learn to hear music.” Lots of is-ought problems (i.e. we hear music this way so music ought to do that). Training and learning is a really big part of it, and I think that a lot of times people would rather hang onto the notion that music is a universal language that just “comes naturally.”

            2. Well, I don’t want to get too OT either, so I’ll just make this one brief reply.

              I think Schenker is about percept to a significant degree.  One can listen to the elaborations in the foreground and perceive, in real time, the scale-step or other background event they elaborate.  It takes a bit of effort to cultivate this kind of listening.  But even if you’ve never heard of Schenker, those linear progressions should still be working to give the music a coherence perceptible to you, or your subconscious.

              What I was getting at by invoking the overtone series was not so much that it informs local aspects of composition, like individual pitch choice (although I think it can indirectly do that) but more generally that it explains and even serves as the source of tonality itself.

              Do you mind my asking if I might find any examples of your work on YT or the like?

            3. Yes, to a degree Schenker is about perception, but only to a degree. To the degree that it isn’t, it’s because often a passage will depend for its coherence under Schenker on the ability to revise one’s prior perceptions of the function of something, in order that it fit into something larger. In other words, perception of “what it really was” according to Schenkerian theory can change drastically depending upon the contextual scope, and ultimately Schenker needs the entire piece. This isn’t a problem conceptually nor compositionally (after all you can get a lot from setting something up one way and then denying it later), but it is a problem if you’re going to treat the theory as a model of perception as it occurs in time.

              As for the overtone theory as an explanation of tonality, I’m afraid you won’t find much sympathy from me, except that I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the major triad happens to be found in the first five partials — that much is clear. What isn’t quite clear is where the rest of it fits in — tonal structure depends at least as much (and I would maintain, quite a bit more in fact) on the number-theoretic properties of 7 and 12, and the group operations that are available on triads which maintain smooth voice-leading (without those things prolongation is impossible, and those operations are available to an extent on things other than triads as well).

              I appreciate this conversation – it’s rare to have it outside of music theory circles. I’d be delighted to share my music with you; I only have two pieces on youtube, but you can visit my website here:


              Each piece is different in style, so you may find something to enjoy.

              1. One more quick reply.

                ultimately Schenker needs the entire piece.

                Ok. I see what you mean. You can’t have a complete understanding of events in a tonal piece unless you can refer to all points in the piece. Which you can’t do in real time if you’ve never heard the piece before. This organic approach to explanation is a big part of what I like about Schenker.

                What do you think about the explanation for deriving the 7 diatonic pitches in the major scale given by Louis and Thuille: that they are supplied by the triads built on a given pitch and two others a fifth above and below (I know Schenker didn’t like it but it makes sense to me)? And if that seems plausible, the 12 chromatic pitches can be derived by applying dominants (that is, acknowledging the strength of the interval of the fifth) to each of the diatonic pitches.

                Just throwing that out there.

                Thanks much for the link. Are you currently at Eastman? As a student or professor? I graduated from Eastman in Organ P&L.

                I’ll probably cool it with the music stuff now, before our host gets annoyed.

              2. Well then,

                I have contact info on my website — feel free to drop me a line. I have much to say about the Louis and Thuille matter, but yes, this is probably not the space for it. =o)

                (PS – finishing dissertation at Eastman)

  23. I did a PubMed search “time perception” and got 55,194 hits.

    Many of them weren’t on point on the first page — but one would have to assume that among all those papers there must be a hit or three of relevance.

  24. My grandmother explained this to me in exactly these terms back in 1974, when she was 89 years old and I was 20 or 21.

    She said that, for her, the 3 months of summer went so quickly because at age 89 she had lived more than 350 times that long already but that for me, summer seemed longer because I’d lived less than 100 times that long already. She reminded me of being a little kid and how long summers lasted then, and how long it seemed until Christmas even after school had started.

    It made sense to me then, and I’ve never seen reason to question it further. Now, at age 58, I’m sure she was right.

    1. I agree. If you have only lived for five years, a summer is a very large proportion of your total experience. If you’ve lived through 58 summers, a single summer is a much smaller proportion of your total experience and thus seems to pass more quickly. This view, of course, depends on accepting the premise that the perception of elapsed time is dependent on the proportion of the length of the time to lifetime experience.

      Too bad–at five years old, one (hopefully) has many more summers to enjoy. For those of older than that, it just means that the advice of Omar quoted above should be taken!

      Happy New Year to all.

  25. Just a note of caution; speaking for myself but more generally as well, i am VERY good at judging elapsed time, and always have been. so the fact i perceive time to pass more quickly now than when i was younger has no bearing on my judgment on the time elapsed, IYSWIM.

  26. I think time may seem to pass more quickly as we get older because in this cultrue we have a paradigm of “time is money”.Well actualy no,its not.It is in the sense that,you know, if a worker takes more time to produce a product or service it costs the business more money(wages).However in its fundemental sense,time is merely the measure of the physical movement of the universe.A year is the “time” it takes the Earth to move from one position in its orbit to the same position.This measurment in the real world can be taken at any time,and is not dependent on our arbitrary conventions of months.Well,not exactly.A month is based on the “time”or physical speed+plus the physical size of the moons orbit.It my be that if you engage in certain mindfullness practices-moving slower physically-somehow taking on more childlike attitude that had when you were younger(if thats possible)you could slow your perception of time.But consider the paradigm of our culture-derived from our utilization of fossils fuels,and computers-the need for speed etc.If your readjust your perspective to deep time (age of the earth,etc.)a few decades lifespan isnt really that long at all.Anyway fascinating topic.Good Show for bringing it up Jerry.Keep up the good work.

  27. I have remarked on this phenomenon myself and always put it down to just being a helluva lot busier all the time as I got older so time seems to fly by. Real test might be retirement.

  28. A stray thought: what role would longevity rates play in time perception? Centuries ago, living past 30 or 40 was unusual. At age 20, people couldn’t plan on another 50 or 60 years of life. Today, we can. In the future, if longevity rates increase substantially, I wonder if time perception would change also.

  29. These are basically the same thoughts I’ve had since reaching “middle age” (or what I hope is my middle age, since that would mean living well into my 80s). When you’re a child, you have a very small frame of reference, with no discernible beginning. Therefore, one year in school is a virtual eternity–you simply have nothing to compare it to.

    It’s stunning to look back on my own childhood, and think how 6 years of primary school lasted forever, but nowadays, 6 years is virtually nothing. That’s because I’ve got a much wider frame of reference now, and I’ve been through 6 years many times.

  30. Is there such a thing as The Metabolism Hypothesis? If not, I claim dibs. Children have lots of energy. This makes them fidgety and impatient, which in turn affects their perception of time. But as adults age their mental processes slow, which in turn makes life seem to speed up around them. Bursts of adrenaline which speed up the brain’s ability to process information can also seem to slow down time.

  31. I think there is a difference between “seemed like time passed quickly” and “seeming like time is passing quickly.” I agree that for the former, what time seemed like is a function of how many moments you’ve had. But I don’t think that the experiment would show that as it would measure the later.

  32. Nothing substantive, just pedantry:

    There was a threefold difference between the smallest and largest towns!

    Incorrect. There was a 3-fold difference between the fastest and slowest-walking towns.
    The difference between Psychro and Brooklyn (the smallest and largest) was less than 2 fold.

  33. Jerry, one floor in your experiment may be the same effect that leads to bystanders not intervening in assaults they witness, for example.

    If the participants were all in individual rooms, it may work better. You’d probably have to try to find a balance in how tired they were feeling also.

  34. I think the walking speed result is most likely due to sampling bias. In small towns, everybody walks around town. In cities, walkers walk, and non-walkers take the bus or subway.

    Also, did they control for physical fitness? It’s my anecdotal observation that fitness and healthy lifestyles correlate with population density. Urbanites tend go to the gym and work out more than small-town folks, and have better access to good restaurants, fresh produce, health food stores, and so on. There aren’t many McDonald’s and Burger Kings downtown; those are mostly concentrated in suburbs and towns along major highways. (There are, however, about a dozen Starbucks within five blocks of my apartment, so maybe that has something to do with it.)

  35. Time started zooming by at a much greater speed for me just after I left high school at 18. It really was like a switch, and while I have no problem accepting that the perception increases as time goes on (I’ve doubled my age since then, and it seems true to me now), I do not think a proportion-of-life approach can work, because of that apparent jolt after school (for some, it’s not until after college that the high gear kicks in).

  36. I remember reading about a study about how time seems to slow down in life/death situations. It basically related to memory in that you essentially took more notice of the world and laid down more memories in “exciting” situations. A bit like taking a photo with a 3MP camera versus a 10MP. Going through the memory of the incident takes longer, and so time seems to slow down.

    In the same way, when you are young, the world is “new” and you pay more attention and create more memories. As you get older, its more of the “been there, done that”, so you don’t make as many unique memories and time seems to pass quicker.

    I wrote a poem about this when I was in university, basically extrapolating the effect to someone who didn’t age or die (effectively immortal). In essence, time seemed to pass so quickly that they could no longer really interact with the world, and just watch as people/cities/civilizations grew old, died, and new ones appeared around them. It also meant that as pain/unhappiness tend to last longer than joys/pleasure that you tended to see much more of the former than the latter. A bit sad, but not a situation we’re likely to get to experience.

  37. I may have missed something, but it seems like your proposed experiment only measures how accurately individuals can perceive the passing of an hour, not necessarily whether or not that hour “feels” long or short. An 8 year old asked to indicate when that hour has expired may or may not underestimate it, but either way, her thought process will likely be something like, “well, I guess I should wait an awful long time before I tell him.” An 80 year old, on the other hand will presumably wait until he feels a relatively short time has passed. And isn’t that “longness” and “shortness” of perception what your original hypothesis was concerned with?

    I can think of no easy way to measure such a thing. I suppose if you had a population of people living in an environment with no reliable external means of telling time something could be arranged, but the thing is as you get older and that sense of temporal acceleration begins to take hold, you’re constantly re-defining your own sense of an hour (or whatever interval) by checking it against reliable timepieces, (sun, watch) from the 8 year old’s excruciating wait, to the old man’s blink of an eye.

  38. To sum up, it is an old idea and people have checked some of this it seems.

    As I remember it, age does neither affect your short time sense of time as such nor the ability to lay down long time memories.

    But it does affect your need and ability to access long time memory. If so, time will appear shortened. “Been there, done that” is a powerful constraint!

    It also, I would think, affects your experience when you access the fewer memories you happen to access. Your processing system and both how it integrates and separates changes over the years. I.e. if smells suddenly leak over as triggering colors, your memory will be degraded if they contain both smell and vision.

  39. I would propose a different experiment: travel around the world and interview people in various places. Perhaps time seems to fly by simply because you have planned too much to do and haven’t had much time to just look around. How would the passing of time be perceived by folks who still live as hunter/gatherers? How about folks who have a lot of money and don’t care to work? At this point I already have over 8 years of things to do piled up.

  40. I’m approaching 78 (taking as much time as I can to get there) and continually wonder where the time went. Things I used to do rather quickly when I was young seem to take a lot longer now (getting up in the morning, doing chores, etc.). Part of it is I’ve added more little details to what I do so they actually take longer, making me think time is whizzing by. Make sense?

  41. There’s (at least) two different kinds of time. There’s an individual day and then there’s whole weeks months and years. The length of a day is correlated with how busy you are, if you have nothing to do it goes on and on, if you have too much to do it’s over in a blink. It’s also correlated with how happy you are, misery makes a day last forever. But long term time goes quicker the less you have to do, I hypothesize that this is because you look back on your week, and it seems to have flown because you can’t remember anything much that you did. The impression of dragging days and flying weeks is a sign of depression, maybe old folks are just depressed, or get less done in a month or year.

  42. Do a lot of travelling, and time seems to have gone slowly. Stick to a routine, day-after-day at home/workplace, the opposite seems to have occurred. That’s me, anyway.

    For Jerry’s experiment, surely you’d need to put people somewhere they had no external means of determining the time. But even then, I could use my heart rate and get very close. So you’d need them in there with no idea what the experiment was about. But then you’d go in, after, say, 53.7 minutes, and ask each independently how much time has seemed to elapse. Surely the older folks would mostly say less and the younger more. But that is almost the opposite to what he said as the result, and in any case, it all depends on how reflective the individual has been over the years about their sense of time passing. Also, those with a book to read, or maybe the Riemann-zeta hypothesis to try to prove, will find time went much faster. You could deny them the book, but you couldn’t deny them the mental problem to solve. On the other hand, those awaiting someone’s serious decision about their lives will find time dragging. And indeed, days can seem slow while the same months seem to have been fast, as many here say.

    So I’m extremely dubious about this (and an awful lot of other psychological) experimentation. But it’s fun!


    1. Routine is the key. Your brain simply won’t store repeated tasks it has performed before. so a routine life, has less stored data for any given amount of time.

      if on the other hand, you are constantly experiencing novelty, that same time period will have created many more memories, and thus recalling it will give the impression of it being ‘slower’.

  43. Although my perception won’t be published in Nature either, I can verify that: tourists in large cities walk much, much slower than natives and drive the fast-walking natives nuts.

    1. They also stop at the top & bottom of escalators as if they have no idea what they’re supposed to do next, having not taken a step in 30 seconds or so. They have no concept of “HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE BEHIND YOU WHO CAN’T TURN AROUND!!!”

  44. “So I made a hypothesis: one sees the passage of time in relation to the length of one’s past life. The duration of each moment is weighed in relation to how many moments have gone before, and so seems more fleeting when you’ve experienced more moments. And that’s why, for older people, time seems to pass more quickly.”

    …and then when you get reeeeally old it runs in reverse and you wind up toothless & in diapers, trapped in a crib.

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