Why does first year go so quickly?

If you’ve started university this year, you’re guaranteed to hear someone tell you how quickly it will all be over. It’s a bittersweet phrase not dissimilar to “the best years of your life”, and one that seems to hold true in many, but not all, cases. Regardless, if that does turn out to be your experience, why might that be?

The issue of time perception is a confusing one, because while we lack any obvious organs or systems to track the passage of time, everyone seems to agree that it’s something that we definitely can do. This is complicated by the fact that we’re bound completely to the present moment; there are no opportunities to observe time moving as it happens, we can only do it retrospectively. The conclusion researchers draw from this is that we must be using our memory, the only intrinsic faculty we have to ‘observe’ the past, to pick two separate events and make a subjective assessment. As a result, perceptions of how much time elapses between two events appear to vary between different species, different people, and even the same person at different points in their life.

A common measure of time perception is the critical flicker fusion (CFF) rate, the frequency at which a flashing light appears constant (consider how TV screens and lightbulbs flicker in slow-mo videos). The logic is that the faster the flicker an organism can detect, the shorter its definition of ‘a moment’ must be, and therefore more slowly time must seem to move for it. CFF is not, however, the whole story.

In the 2007 article “Does time really slow down during a frightening event?”, researchers from the University of Texas showed that when participants were dropped from a high tower wearing a device designed to measure CFF, their ability to distinguish between flickers was unchanged, but their reported subjective experience of time slowed down. One of the researchers, David Eagleman, suggests that this is because in a perilous situation, the brain lays down more memories, and so in hindsight the events feel more drawn out. What, then, are the factors affecting your experience as you enter university?

One of the most obvious, and most talked-about, causes of a change in your experience of time is age. Is it possible that you’re just getting older? A 2013 article in Time and Society compared results from dozens of studies throughout history looking at this question and found varying results. About 70% of participants, regardless of age, say that time is passing faster now than it used to. However, when results from different age groups are compared, older people don’t report the last few weeks, months, or years as passing any faster than younger people. Experiments have shown that older people judge the passing of minutes and seconds less accurately, but none can demonstrate that this has any impact on perceptions of longer durations. On the other end of the spectrum, it has been shown that as you age, you view the past ten years as passing increasingly quickly, but not any smaller increments that might be relevant to us. While age is clearly an important consideration in time perspective, it doesn’t look like it helps answer this question specifically. 

At the end of last year, French scientists published a paper titled “Time and Emotion During Lockdown and the Covid-19 Epidemic: Determinants of Our Experience of Time?”, which compared the circumstances and emotional states of participants to their self-reported assessments of the passage of time. That means this is a case of how it feels like time is moving, which could be more suitable for us. What they found was that the major cause of a sense of slowing down was boredom, and its resulting decrease in happiness. Factors such as fear, anger, sleeplessness, and relationship or employment status did not have a significant effect. This finding is mirrored in other research into time, where ‘arousal’ (as in the state of being awake and alert) is shown to be key to speeding up the passage of time. It appears that the more attention you’re paying to a task, the more quickly time moves, and the more excited you are, the better you concentrate. 

Ok, fine, so the more fun you’re having, the less bored you are, the more quickly time moves. Hardly that surprising. But that can’t be all of it – it’s one thing for the year to pass quickly because you’re not sitting around doing nothing all day, but in order for you to say “God, that went quickly” you have to be looking back on it. It’s here that the interplay between the moment-to-moment experience of time and the long-term perception of it comes in.