Why your sense of time is warped during lockdown

The Covid-19 lockdown has distorted our sense of time


May 26, 2020 

"Normal" routines disrupted

Remember what normal life was like? For some of us, Friday was an exciting goal, filled with joyful thoughts of weekend plans. Monday morning was dreaded; the start of another work week. These days people aren’t certain what day it is.

March Flew. April Dragged. The year 2020 itself seems to be lasting for...years. Yes, the Covid-19 lock down has distorted our sense of time, but even our distortion appears distorted.

A survey from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found 48 percent of the 1,100 questioned thought time was dragging during the past month while 25 percent thought time was moving faster than usual.

What’s happening to create this collective time warp? It turns out the science behind why time goes by fast or slow points out a strange but true fact: while time is a constant (there’s a specific way to measure it) time is also relative and subjective. Here’s the first problem:

The pandemic lockdown has taken away our temporal anchors

“Temporal anchors are regularly occurring events, like weekends, which help orient us in time,” explains Key Maitra, PhD, professor of Philosophy at The University of North Carolina Asheville. “The idea is that people take certain events during the week that are cyclical and anchor themselves to it. But without temporal anchors, we lose our perception of time because days and weeks meld together and everything feels the same. We feel adrift because we don’t know when “now” is.”

Philosophers who use the term study Phenomenology, the branch of philosophy that deals with consciousness, thought and experience. In other words, how a phenomenon appears to you.

In this case, the question is not just how we perceive time (what day it is) but also how we experience time (those temporal anchors). The loss of those anchors might explain how we lose our place in time, but also that feeling of time expanding. Why does the year 2020 seem like it started five years ago? Here’s the second problem:

Many things influence our perception of time

"Time is part of our consciousness because it is as the root of everything we do and the heart of who we are,” explains Michael Wilkinson, a PhD student in psychology at North Carolina State University. “Time is a measurement, and while we don’t do anything without time, stress, depression, boredom and uncertainty influence our perception of time.”

The reason that happens is that while there’s actual physical time as measured by a clock, internally each person has their own estimation of time. And there are two types. Duration estimate; which is an accuracy judgement and is based on information around you. If you’re estimating how long a move might run, you would consider how long similar types of movies are and make an estimation. The second type is passage of time estimate, which is essentially a guess at how much time has passed.

And here’s the catch; the more you experience stress, boredom and uncertainty about the future, the slower time seems pass by. Pandemic anxiety is worsened because the way to stop the coronavirus is to sit at home, which removes social support and activities that might relieve anxiety, such as going to the gym. One thing people can do to counteract the feeling of lost time is to introduce novelty. Play games, rearrange the furniture, have a unique dinner one night a week. It’s part of the reason home improvement stores are reporting a brisk business.

“We need to make our lives effort-ful,” says Wilkinson. “Before the pandemic our schedules helped us get through the week without much effort. Without a routine or schedule, we need to create events that require us to think about and plan for in the coming week. That’s where novelty comes in.”

In other words, there is some truth to the saying that time flies when you are having fun. Longer term, Maitra wonders if quarantine will impact our relationship with time. “It will be interesting to see whether people will find value in things that didn’t seem to have value before; such as a walk, riding a bike, playing a game or reading a book just for fun,” said Maitra. “As our temporal anchors return and we begin to regain our control of time, will people value time more.” You guessed it: only time will tell.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.