Why this year of disrupted routines messed with our sense of time

"In retrospect, because there's so few memories to hold onto, it just feels like it flew by.”

"In retrospect, because there's so few memories to hold onto, it just feels like it flew by.”

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

In a U.K. study published in July 2020, over 80 per cent of participants reported a change in their sense of time passing during the pandemic. Anecdotal evidence of a seismic shift in many people's perception of time was rife on social media. From time dragging in online meetings to flying abnormally fast over the course of months of lockdowns, there was a sense that our internal clocks weren't keeping time the same way they once did.

While we mark the passing of days on calendars and the passing of minutes and hours on watches, our perception of time is subjective. "Time is everywhere," said Simon Grondin, a psychology professor at Laval University in Quebec and author of the book Le temps psychologique en questions. "There is time in the flow of language; there is time in expectation; there is time in the … moment I will strike a note when I play guitar or piano."

This perception of time is linked to how memories are etched in our brains. Neuroscientists at MIT recently identified the brain circuit in the hippocampus that encodes the timing of events, adding to an expanding pool of research that suggests neurons encode information about time and place when we form memories. "It's like a scaffold," said Chris MacDonald, lead author of the study and research scientist at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. Our personal timeline of memories is built upon the dimensions of space and time. But this scaffolding isn't linear.

"We use our memory to estimate time on the fly," said Jim Davies, professor of cognitive science at Carleton University in Ottawa and co-host of the podcast Minding the Brain. "You tend to segment time based on the number of events [that take place]."

When our brains are busily engaged in recording memories of new or remarkable events, such as borders closing or the introduction of new physical distancing rules early on in the pandemic, our perception of time passing can slow down, said Davies. As we adapt to changes and they become routine, like spending days on end in front of a laptop, or performing the same duties in the same space day in, day out, these events become less remarkable and our sense of time passing can speed up. This is why it can often seem as if the return leg of a journey from a new destination seems to pass more quickly: your brain has gotten used to the route.

A paradox of the pandemic is that as we settled into the routine of lockdown life, the indicators of time change that we used to rely on, like weekends, became less meaningful and therefore less remarkable to our brains, according to Davies. "When we look back on it, it feels like an instant has passed, but … in the moment, it feels like things are taking forever," he said. "If you're sitting, doing the same thing all day, every day for a week, it can be agony in the moment. It can feel like time is dragging ... when in retrospect, because there's so few memories to hold onto, it just feels like it flew by." 

One way to tune into the moment and counterbalance the feeling that time is flying by is to try meditation, said Robin Kramer, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Lincoln in the U.K. who has studied the effects of meditation on time perception. That meditation can help slow our perception of time passing isn't surprising. But what is unexpected is how little time it takes for the effects of meditation to kick in. "It was only a short meditation … only a 10-minute exercise," he said of the study. "The fact that even such a small amount of meditation seems to affect your perception of time was quite a surprising and cool thing."

Meditation isn't the only option to regulate our sense of time passing. "You can try to demarcate the months, the years, the seasons, the days in certain ways," said Davies. "Let's say you really love watching Netflix…. Maybe only let yourself watch it on Saturday. And that makes Saturday special, and it marks the week in a way that it might not normally." 

If the demarcation becomes a daily habit, however, it loses its effect. "You'll end up doing it mindlessly," Davies said. "That thing will not contribute to your sense of the passage of time."

So how will we look at the pandemic period in the After Times? Grondin predicts our sense of time is likely to return to pre-pandemic "normal" as society reopens and we re-establish daily schedules. "It will probably likely appear like a parenthesis in our life," he said. "Twenty-five years from now it will almost look like a … memory that went by so fast." 

Laura Fitch is a freelance writer currently based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a range of publications, including Maclean's, the Wall Street Journal, Azure, South China Morning Post and more. 

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