Ottawa

Where did the time go? Blame the pandemic

For many of us, the last 20 months have flown by. Experts say that's because the monotony of pandemic life has robbed us of the unique experiences our brains use to make memories and track time.

Monotony of lockdown robbed us of unique experiences we need to make memories

For some of us, time seemed to stand still during the pandemic. For others, the last year and a half has flown by. (Hailley Furkalo/CBC)

A friend mentioned recently that whenever someone asks him about "last year," his mind automatically rewinds to 2019.

For him, 2020 isn't just a blur — it has virtually disappeared from his memory altogether.

Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many of us began to notice a strange phenomenon: There were moments under lockdown when the clock seemed to stop, but looking back, it feels like the time flew by.

CBC Ottawa put the question to our Instagram followers: How have the last 20 months altered your perception of the passage of time?

"It feels like 20 years," wrote one. "Was 3 months pregnant in March 2020. I'm a different person."

"I feel as though I'm still in 11th grade but I'm approaching end of first term uni," replied another.

'The markers of time are missing'

We know that, objectively, time moves in a constant, linear manner, much like — well, much like the ticking of a clock. Subjectively, however, we each measure the passage of time in our own way.

Cognitive scientists believe our brains make that calculation by looking for signposts in the form of memorable experiences. The fewer signposts there are, the harder it is for our minds to map out how much time has passed, creating a sense of disassociation that for some can be upsetting.

The pandemic, by forcing many of us into isolation and removing the activities we used to mark time, has made some of us forget vast swaths of the last year and a half. Months of monotonous routine have taken their toll on our memories.

"The markers of time are missing," said Claudia Hammond, author of Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception

"There are so many more routines, and if you have routines ... you don't make so many new memories. And we judge how much time has passed by how many new memories we made."

Claudia Hammond is a broadcaster, psychology lecturer and author of several books, including Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. (Ian Brodie/iBRODIEfoto.com)

Not only has COVID-19 robbed us of those unique experiences we use to mark the past; it's also cancelled or at least postponed many important events we were looking forward to, like family gatherings, weddings and vacations.

"During the pandemic, we've not been able to plan as much," Hammond noted. "We're being forced to live in the present."

A U.K. study published in July 2020 found more than 80 per cent of participants "experienced distortion to the passage of time during lockdown in comparison with normal."

The study also found that "age, stress, task load and satisfaction with current levels of social interaction" affected how individuals perceived the passage of time. Participants who were older, stressed out, overworked or dissatisfied with their social lives felt time slow to a crawl during lockdown, while younger, more socially satisfied participants tended to feel time pass more quickly.

According to Jim Davies, a professor in the department of cognitive science at Ottawa's Carleton University, the common factor for just about everyone has been monotony. 

"We're not going out as much, we're not having people over as much, we're not travelling as much. So the kind of markers — trips that you take and those kinds of things — are replaced with a lot of repetitive, habitual tasks," he said.

Two people pass an image of the Peace Tower clock in downtown Ottawa in September. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Paradoxical time

That monotony can have a paradoxical effect as we tackle routine tasks, Davies explained. "In the moment it can feel like it's taking forever, but in retrospect it seems like the blink of an eye."

There's another paradox at play. Although we're all in the midst of a historic global event, punctuated by other noteworthy happenings, that in itself isn't enough to fuel the kind of memories most of us need to mark time.

For an experience to have salience — for it to be memorable, and thereby help us grasp the passage of the days, weeks and months — it must be personal and emotional, Davies said. 

"If you got some kind of accolade, or you got dumped by your lover or whatever, that is a big event in your life. And so the more of those that happened, the more time seems to have passed," he said. "In normal times, most people's lives are filled with a lot more salient things that their mind can sort of hold onto to estimate how much time has passed."

For the same reason, most people will recall vacations in vivid detail, but when we return home to our routines, the days seem to fly by.

The same phenomenon can affect our spatial perception, too. For example, most people will judge a walk from one end of Disney World to the other to be much farther than it actually is because there's so much visual stimulation along the way.

Jim Davies is an author and professor in the cognitive science department at Ottawa's Carleton University. (Submitted by Jim Davies)

Now, with many pandemic restrictions lifting and our lives gradually returning to a sort of normal, many of us are starting to make those salient memories again.

Experts say we can speed up the process by forcing ourselves to break from our pandemic routines, even in small ways.

The hippocampus — the part of our brain that's thought to be responsible for turning experiences into memories — becomes stimulated the moment we walk out the door. So we should do that more often, Hammond said, and we should choose a different route each day.

"The moment you leave your home, your safe place, you start to pay more attention to what goes on and [begin] making more memories that you can navigate, and you lose all that if you barely leave your house," she said. "If you're always sitting at the same computer screen in your home, it all looks a bit the same."

Davies suggests trying out a new recipe, sleeping in a different bed or reaching out to an old friend.

"I think what we've been denied are the usual sources of variation in our life, but there are lots of things we can do at home," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alistair Steele

Writer and editor

After spending more than a decade covering Ottawa city hall for CBC, Alistair Steele is now a feature writer and digital copy editor at cbc.ca/ottawa.

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