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How COVID-19 Has Altered Our Perception of Time

Did COVID chill time? Here's why time runs so slowly in pandemic years.

Key points

  • We have all been living in odd ways for over a year, hoping for an end, while anxiety confuses our typically calibrated sense of time.
  • Time has messed with our brains while it learns to pigeonhole memories of events that happened in the pandemic.
  • While time keeps ticking away, our experience of it can change, contracting or dilating with a number of factors from our natural body rhythms and health to emotions.

One year ago, I had some birthday cake with my family in a café. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the last time I was in a closed space other than my own home. Looking back, I couldn’t help wonder why time seemed to move fast for me but slowly for my friends. Why did I forget the names of acquaintances, and why did some ordinary words occasionally escape my mouth with an extra syllable or a missing one?

Joseph Mazur
Chilled Time
Source: Joseph Mazur

There are good reasons: Anxiety is one, but live human interaction is a reason that dominates. I don’t have to tell anyone that it’s been such a ghastly year filled with political shenanigans, nail-biting elections, health fright, and division. Speaking of nail-biting, you likely noticed that your nails grew surprisingly fast in 2020.

Worst of all, nobody knew when the odd way of living would end. And that’s the core anxiety driver. There seems to be a contradiction: Our lives are suspended by routines that should make time seem to run faster, yet time now appears to move more slowly.

Contractions and Dilations of Time

For centuries we have known that time sense depends on mood, general happiness, and routine. A person into a novel at the beach will have a different time sense than someone collecting receipts for an income tax audit. The perception of time contracts by the enjoyment of events and dilates by the boredom of doing menial tasks.

Experiments have also shown that we can feel time as contracted, even when we know it is inflexible. Differences in the speeds of those times are dependent on situations because the brain uses time dilations and contractions to coordinate and synthesize our motor and other sensory functions.

The brain has enormous control by way of an internal clock mechanism that regulates our body responses. It learns to perceive the passage of time from memories of events that happen—circadian rhythms of night-darkness and daylight and the enjoyment of events and the boredom of doing menial tasks. It is flexible, though, when it needs to be.

But that internal clock has to be set. Light coming from the eyes signaling to the brain has a considerable effect. In the winter months, we are indoors, getting insufficient ultraviolet light and scarce human contact with our relatives, neighbors, and friends. That kind of living distorts memory of events in time. It plays with the mind and messes with the brain to make one feel zombielike.

Humans need a hug once in a while. We have faces to be seen for communication. A smile is an emotional signal for another person to smile back. And evolution has, by sheer, glorious accident, made us social beings ill-equipped to live as Zooming hermits.

This Quirky Past Year Has Messed with Our Brains

Time and memory are tightly linked, and memory can be somewhat illuminated with neuroimaging tools that establish causal associations of brain areas with relatively specific functional roles. Significant events become indelible milestones in the timelines of our lives because memories are the markers of time. Unless we attach a date or group of collected memorable events, we confuse the timing of events in our memories. In these days of COVID, our memories become muddled; they clump in our repeated routines that make every day feel as if it is the same as the day before.

We all have temporal illusions. Cocaine and marijuana can shift and distort time. So too can illnesses, such as bulimic disorders, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases. But everyone distorts time intermittently (for practical reasons) as dilations or contractions, depending on the neural pathways to be activated for coordinated sensations or on what stimulants (caffeine, for instance) are in the diet. Then there are the more benign emotions, such as a breakup, a vacation, or a boring event, that distort natural temporal thinking.

Anxiety, though, is a ghostly beast. We don’t always realize that it is in control. And that is why time messes with the brain living in this abnormal year.

Where Did the Time Go This Past Year—and What Did We Learn?

The body knows time from its pulses, biorhythms, and zeitgebers . Those measures are solely in the mind. So, when you ask where the year went, you know that it went where all years go: into a confusing memory that always telescopes time according to mood.

What have we learned from that past ghastly year? Lots. We’ve always known that science, the best tool for human survival, is on our side. But besides knowing that Zooms are just OK, not a replacement for actual human contact, we now have a renewed appreciation for the luck in our lives. That’s something we should never forget. And let us not forget that contentious politics can make a crisis worse.

With all the good news coming from the CDC and elsewhere, we should be celebrating. There will be blips along the way through the next few months, but immunities are building and trying to stay ahead of variants. Leading economists believe that the economy will fully rebound before the summer of 2022.

More sunshine is coming. Maybe even July 4th cookouts. Hang in there.

© 2021 Joseph Mazur

References

Warren H. Meck, (June 1996) “Neuropharmacology of timing and time perception,” Cognitive Brain Research, Vol. 3, Issues 3-4, pp. 227-242.

Mangan, P.A. Bolinskey, P.K. and Rutherford, A.L. Wolfe, C. (1996). “Altered time perception in elderly humans results from the slowing of an internal clock.” Society for Neuroscience Abstracts, 221-3): 183.

Roeckelein JE. (2008) "History of conceptions and accounts of time and early time perception research." In: Grondin S, ed. Psychology of Time. Bingley, UK: Emerald Press, 1–50.

Marc Wittmann, Translated by Erik Butler, Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time (Cambridge, Massachusetts: 2006) 132-134.

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