Quarantime: Why the Days Drag and the Weeks Fly By

Research on time and memory explains why the lockdown distorts our perceptions.

Posted Jun 20, 2020

Everyone on lockdown in their own home is experiencing an unfamiliar kind of relativity. Every moment seems interminable but days and weeks are rushing by at dizzying pace. This was how Irman Khan, the head of public engagement at the Wellcome Trust, describes the feeling.

Strange lockdown time-dilation effect; days have become much longer, but weeks much shorter.
Any explanation for this?
@ImranKhan, 2:21 PM · May 14, 2020

As it happens, I have done a fair bit research of time perception so I have a few thoughts about this. First up, I think we should call it Quarantime. And then I am happy to report that there is a scientific explanation. Here's what I tweeted back to Imran:

Quarantime!

My longer answer as a time perception researcher is that the passage of time as it happens (days) will be slower because of the monotony of your environment. But the memory of the time elapsed (weeks) will be shorter because time is made of events and there were fewer of those.

@czzpr - 2:30 PM · May 14, 2020

Time is memory

This is all to do with how your brain tells the time. Essentially, time is memory. Your brain tells the time by counting the events that pass — the more events that occur the more time has elapsed. So when you are stuck in the same environment with very little variety to your day there will be two complementary effects.

First, the lack of events will make it seem that time is passing really slowly. Because..... each.... external.... event.... that.... happens.... takes.... a.... long... time... to... arrive.... But your heart and physiology carry on at their normal pace. So it seems like experience has slowed down and, additionally, it is just more boring. Those events aren't especially eventful.

But then, when you look back upon that interminable and unremarkable day, you will find you have very little to remember. Perhaps enough things to fill half a day. Retrospectively therefore, it will feel like your day has whizzed past.

At first glance, this seems paradoxical but that is because we have an incorrect notion of our own experience of time. For us, time really is relative. Which is weird because that's not how clocks work (unless you accelerate them to close to the speed of light).

What tells the time?

There are no clocks in the human brain. Well, there are some quite clever timing circuits in the cerebellum that operate on a millisecond timescale. But there are no ticking clocks. At least none that work on the human experiential time scale of seconds and minutes. There are three big problems with the idea of clocks in the brain.

  1. Despite forty years of looking for them, no one has found them.
  2. A mathematical law called the Central Limit Theorem proves that human time perception is worse than any ticking clock would measure.
  3. If we did have clocks we'd probably have to start one for each event we ever wanted to keep track of.

Letting your memory measure time solves all these problems. I know this because I spent five years working on just this problem.

The story is too long to get into here but, in brief, combining experiments with babies with a computational model that learns like a baby, my colleagues and I came up with a new theory of short interval timing. In a nutshell, it says that we guesstimate the passage of time based on how our memories fade (French, Addyman, Mareschal & Thomas, 2014). It is a bit beyond the scope of this article to go into the mechanics, but the concept is very simple. Rather than using a special clock circuit in the brain, we suggest our sense of time uses what is already there — our memory of what just happened. The longer ago an event was, the fuzzier your memory.

If you want more detail, here's an accessible description and here's a more technical paper.

How did we ask the babies? I think it's easiest just to show you.

Variety is the spice of life.

Quarantime isn't only relativistically dull. Worse yet, the days really are a drag. Brand new research by Arron Heller, from the University of Miami, and collaborators at NYU has found that lockdown is decreasing your happiness. Conducted before the lockdown, they used GPS data from volunteers' phones with data on their mood to find that:

On days when people had more variability in their physical location — visiting more locations in a day and spending proportionately equitable time across these locations — they reported feeling MORE POSITIVE EMOTIONS.

Scientists pin down a link between happiness and 1 daily activity (Inverse)

So what can you do to fix both these problems? UCL psychologist and fellow PT blogger Dr. Julia Shaw, author of The Memory Illusion, has come up with an interesting solution. She and her partner have been taking regular virtual trips across the world from the comfort of their own home.

At least once a week, the couple would spend an evening learning all they could about a country. They would listen to podcasts or watch documentaries, wear the colors of the country’s flag, cook the food. They kept a spreadsheet. “We go all in; it takes the better part of a day to engage with all that material, it’s a lot of work. But that’s also why it works,” explained Shaw. “Because if you put in a lot of effort, a lot of time, that makes it more memorable.”

Failure of memory and the unreality of time in lockdown (Boston Globe)

So, quickly book a virtual holiday, while there's still time.

References

Addyman, C., French, R. M., & Thomas, E. (2016). Computational models of interval timing. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 8, 140-146.

Addyman, C., Rocha, S., & Mareschal, D. (2014). Mapping the origins of time: Scalar errors in infant time estimation. Developmental psychology, 50(8), 2030.

French, R. M., Addyman, C., Mareschal, D., & Thomas, E. (2014). GAMIT–A fading-Gaussian activation model of interval-timing: Unifying prospective and retrospective time estimation. Timing & Time Perception Reviews, 1(1), 1-17.

Shaw, J. (2016). The memory illusion: Remembering, forgetting, and the science of false memory. Random House.