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Our growing tendency to “chunk” our experiences could explain why life speeds up

18 December 2017

“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 of a new paper in Self and Identity that aims to explain the reasons for this phenomenon.

Understand it properly, and it might be possible to stop it – because as Mark Landau at the University of Kansas, US, and his colleagues also note: “Perceiving life as rapidly slipping away is psychologically harmful: unpleasant, demotivating, and possibly even hostile to the sense that life is meaningful.”

The philosopher Douglas Hofstadter suggested that the acceleration of time is the result of our increasing tendency through life to package distinct experiences into bigger “chunks”. For example, for a child, a walk in the park can involve so many new experiences – their first sighting of flowers covered in snow, perhaps, or of a scary dog – that each are remembered as distinct individual events.

For the adult accompanying that child, if nothing novel happens, all the varied sensations and impressions associated with that walk may be collapsed – or “chunked” – into a single memory of “a walk in the park”. Since, as far as the adult is concerned, only one thing happened, that span of time will be remembered as brief, while for the child, it will feel long.

Read more on our Research Digest blog

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