Abcarian: Living life on COVID time
Has this happened to you?
You call your dentist to make an appointment for your annual checkup, and you discover that you haven't been to see him since April 2019.
You are getting dressed for a meeting when you suddenly realize you already attended it — two days ago.
You find yourself checking the calendar because you can’t remember what day of the week it is, and then realize you don’t know what week of the month it is, either.
While COVID-19 famously impairs its victims’ senses of taste and smell, many of us who have managed to stay healthy over the past 16 months have developed a different kind of symptom: an impaired sense of time.
For some, it feels as if the pandemic has been going on for a decade or more.
For me, it’s the opposite; time seems to have telescoped.
The months of trepidation and lockdown have compressed themselves. I feel like I just saw my dentist, and yet it’s been more than two years. My poor teeth.
“For humans,” said experimental psychologist Ruth Ogden, “time is not like a clock. Time is super flexible.” (Salvador Dali’s famous painting of droopy timepieces, “The Persistence of Memory,” springs to mind.)
I called Ogden, who teaches at Liverpool John Moores University, because she is an expert on how people perceive time.
During the pandemic lockdowns, she said, she surveyed more than 600 people in the U.K. about how they were experiencing time. Only 20% felt time was passing normally. Of the rest, 40% said time was passing faster, and 40% felt it was passing slower.
Those who had satisfying social contacts tended to report time passing more quickly than those with unsatisfying social lives. But why have some of us lost track of time altogether?
Ogden said the pandemic has robbed us of what she describes as “our temporal markers.”
“If you are working at home, you can eat lunch or go to bed whenever you want,” she said. “All the normal things that separate each day from another and hold us in time are gone. The thing that made Saturday Saturday was that you weren’t going to work, you could lie in, you didn’t have to leave the house.”
Now, every day blurs into the next, a phenomenon that some have dubbed “Blursday.”
Ogden was on maternity leave with her third child when the pandemic first hit. Understandably, her sense of time shifted.
“It was hell, basically,” she told me by phone Thursday morning. “I could not believe there were only 24 hours in a day. It felt waaay longer.”
This is because time really does fly when you are having fun, she said, and it drags when you are not. No one is exactly sure why, as ideally, it should be just the opposite. But emotion is believed to play a major role.
There also may be an evolutionary reason.
“Before we had clocks and watches, and survived in a more difficult world,” Ogden said, “maybe there was an advantage to having a flexible sense of time. Time slows for people when they believe they are in mortal peril. If you are a cave man and a lion is about to attack you, feeling like you have more time to prepare your response gives you an advantage.”
We do know that the older you are, the faster time seems to pass.
Eleven-year-old: Why does it take so long for my birthday to come?
Me: Christmas again, already?
Researchers say this is probably just a function of how many years one has been alive. If you are 5, one year is 20% of your entire life. If you are 20, one year is a mere 5% of your lifetime. As you get older, a year seems to become a much shorter unit.
Plus, said Ogden, “Kids are busy all the time. A year seems like forever because they have done so much.”
Some researchers have noticed a paradox in the perception of time during the pandemic.
In a BBC radio interview for a segment called “Why Time Flies (and How to Slow it Down),” Duke University physicist Adrian Bejan told host Armando Iannucci that in the early days of the pandemic, many people experienced a slowing of time because we were having a whole new range of experiences and behaviors and our daily lives felt unfamiliar.
Eventually, he said, as the masking and hand-washing and the working from home became routine, time sped up again. (Unless, of course, you were stuck inside with three small children.)
One lasting effect of the pandemic on our perception of time may be that we have simply come to value it more. After all, who wants to spend an hour and a half in the car commuting to and from work? Or an hour primping for the office when you can roll out of bed and turn on the computer?
Strangely, in psychology circles, time is not considered a particularly sexy research topic.
“I have spent my entire career being told to research something else because nobody is interested in time,” Ogden said.
Before the pandemic, she’d done maybe three news interviews in her entire life.
Over the last year-plus, she’s done at least 50.
I guess you could say her time has come.
Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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