One day, more than a month into the pandemic, I skimmed my Twitter feed early in the day and was totally confused. Why were people posting tweets from April 22? I checked Twitter again at night. Same thing happened. People were still sharing tweets from April 22. I was baffled.
It took a few more hours until I realized why: It was April 22.
I don’t know what day, exactly, I thought it was, only that I was sure it was a whole lot later than April. Maybe months later.
Under quarantine, time gets bent out of shape, like Salvador Dali’s clocks. For me, time was speeding up and stretching into the future. Social media, though, seems filled with quips from people who are describing the opposite experience. One tweet was so popular, it was featured on a t-shirt: “2020 is a unique leap year. It has 29 days in February, 300 days in March, 5 years in April.”
Why is this happening? Why is our sense of time so warped?
Psychologists who study the perception of time have been sharing their insights. One is Ruth Ogden, a psychologist at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. She has been conducting an ongoing survey of people’s time perception during the pandemic. She told Arielle Pardes of Wired that, of the first 800 or so people who had responded, about half said time was flying and the other half said it had slowed to a crawl. She and other social scientists point to several factors that could be warping our sense of time.
The potential sources of stress during the pandemic are endless. Maybe you are living with other people, or caring for people who are dependent on you, and you are feeling overburdened, crowded, and cranky. Maybe you are on your own and missing your friends and family. Maybe the coronavirus news is disturbing, even if, personally, the worst of it hasn’t reached you yet. Maybe you are doing quite well, yet still aware that this is a truly odd and unsettling time.
Social scientists have conducted studies of specific kinds of emotional experiences to see how they influence our sense of time. For example, in some research, participants are shown different kinds of facial expressions, such as neutral ones and threatening ones, each for the exact same amount of time. The participants think the scary expressions lasted longer. Duke University psychologist and neuroscientist Kevin LaBar told Discover Magazine that we pay more attention to scary experiences. That deeper processing makes us feel like more time has passed.
For some people, the pandemic has been far worse than stressful — it has been traumatic. Maybe you have been sickened by the virus, or risk exposure to it every time you show up for work. Maybe you have friends or family or coworkers who have died from it. Maybe you’ve lost your job or a huge chunk of your income. Maybe, for the first time in your life, you are in a long line at a food bank.
Alison Holman and Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California at Irvine studied time perception among people who had experienced other kinds of traumas, including Vietnam War veterans, adult victims of childhood incest, and residents of communities devastated by wildfires. Those who had suffered the most severe losses sometimes experienced “temporal disintegration.” The time during which they were experiencing the trauma felt like it was cut off from both the past and the future. The sense of continuity was gone.
Lack of Structure and Boredom
Many of the appointments and obligations that punctuated your calendars before the pandemic are now erased. Without that familiar structure, the hours, days, weeks, and months can seem to meld together, warping your sense of time. Unstructured time is not necessarily boring, but it can be. Time slows down when life feels tedious. As brain scientist Annett Schirmer of the Chinese University of Hong Kong told Discover Magazine, research documents what we have long assumed to be true: “time flies when you’re having fun.”
Uncertainty about How Long the Pandemic Will Last
The coronavirus pandemic comes with a giant question mark: How long will it last? Are we at the very beginning of this thing or will we be practicing social distancing for months or even years? If we do venture out into public places, perhaps encouraged by the loosened restrictions in the places where we live, how do we know a resurgence of the virus won’t send us scurrying back into lockdown?
If you knew, for example, that everything would be back to normal, or something like normal, starting on January 1, 2021, that might seem like a very long time, but at least you could plan accordingly. You could start to build a predictable structure into your life again.
But you don’t have that. All you have is that great big question mark.
That uncertainty is another factor that messes with our sense of time. After interviewing several scholars and authors who have studied perceptions of time, Arielle Pardes concluded:
“Our experience of time isn’t just different because we are fearful or bored, cooped up or overworked. It has changed because we don’t yet know what to measure it against. Coronatime has no scale.”