s parts of the world begin to ease their lockdowns, some people are looking back and finding the time in isolation seems to have gone surprisingly fast. That’s not what many of us expected when we were first told that our lives were about to become so much more restricted than usual, with weeks of potential boredom, confined within our homes stretching ahead of us.
It’s too early for research on this of course, but anecdotally some people are puzzled to find that their days have slipped past surprisingly quickly. It seems hard to believe that we are already nearing the end of May, some two months after lockdowns began.
In the UK, people have been standing on their doorsteps every Thursday evening during the Covid-19 outbreak to applaud health workers. To me it feels as though the ritual is coming around more frequently, which is nice in one way because it is an opportunity to say hello to the neighbours, but disconcerting nonetheless because the weeks feels as though they are flashing by. Journalists from the US to Poland have also been contacting me to ask why time seems to have sped up during the crisis, so it seems I’m not alone.
One reason is that we create our own subjective experience of time in our minds and it doesn’t always match up with what we read on the clock or the calendar. A 20-minute lunch with a friend goes by in a flash, while a 20-minute wait for a delayed train can feel interminable, yet in reality of course the duration is identical.
We estimate time passing in two ways: prospectively (how fast is time passing right now?) and retrospectively (how fast did last week or the last decade go by?).
During lockdown, those isolated from friends, family and work have had long days to fill. People have found all sorts of inventive ways to pass the time – baking bread, planting seeds, creating video call quizzes – but inevitably when you spend every day and every evening at home, the days begin to feel a little similar. Some people have found they haven’t even been distinguishing between weekdays and weekends. (Read more about how lockdown has redefined our weekends.)
This blurring of identical days leads us to create fewer new memories, which is crucial to our sense of time perception. Memories are one of the ways that we judge how much time has passed. When you go on holiday for a week to a new place, the time goes fast while you’re away because everything is new, but when you get home, you look back and have made so many new memories that it often feels as though you’ve been away for far longer than a week.
The opposite can happen in lockdown. Even if the days feels slow, when you get to the end of the week and look back, retrospectively estimating how much time has passed, you have made fewer new memories than usual and time seems to have disappeared. It’s a less extreme version of the experience some people have while in prison or when they’re ill. Time passes painfully slowly and they long for it to be over, but when it is and they look back, time can feel as though it has contracted.
Of course some people have found themselves busier than ever during lockdown, juggling the technological challenges of working from home with the new job of home-schooling their children. Despite their busyness, their new life is spent almost entirely in one location, leading them to make far fewer new memories than usual and the sensation that time has whizzed by. Dozens of Zoom calls from the same surroundings can start to merge into one compared with memories of real life where we see people in different places.
I wonder whether our time perception in lockdown is also altered by the necessity to live more in the present. When the mind is left to wander, in normal times we often daydream about the future, but with less to anticipate or arrange, our time horizon has shortened. Now we might only look ahead by a few days or alternatively into the far distant future when we imagine this might all be over.
When we reach that future and look back on the time of coronavirus, I suspect we might find it hard to delineate different parts of our months in lockdown. We may remember where we were when we heard that the virus had reached the country we live in or that lockdown had been announced. Psychologists called these flashbulb memories and they’re common when we hear about really huge events.
But because of the lack of other markers in time, once lockdown had begun we might find the subsequent weeks hard to differentiate. Often we can work out when different events took place by working out what else was going on in our lives – when we started a new job or went out to celebrate someone’s birthday. But when you can rarely leave your home, these time stamps aren’t there all the days merge into one.
There is a striking way in which individuals vary in their perception of time. Roughly half of us see the future as something which comes towards us, while we stay still, while the other half see ourselves as moving forward into the future.
You can find out who fits into which group with this simple question: “Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days. What day is Wednesday’s meeting now?” The question has two possible answers, neither of which is any more correct than the other. Those who see themselves as static, with the future moving towards them tend to give Monday as the answer, but those who see themselves as moving into the future tend to answer Friday.
Although people usually have an instinctive preference for one answer or the other, certain situations, such as journeys can alter people’s answers. The psychologist Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University found that when people were in airport departures and thus forced to wait, more people than usual answered Monday, but in arrivals people felt they were moving on and more than usual gave the answer Friday.
I can’t prove this, of course, but I wonder whether lockdown might temporarily turn more of us into Monday people, forced into waiting for the future to come towards us.
Claudia Hammond is the author of Time Warped: Understanding the Mysteries of Time Perception.
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