On Pandemic Time
from THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Aug 14, 2020
Have you noticed you’ve been perceiving time differently since the world turned upside down in March?
Many people report that the first month of lockdown felt like it lasted about a year. But then the clock started speeding up. And now it’s whirring like a propeller.
If that’s been your experience, too, the question is why.
The short answer: because time isn’t real. It’s a social and psychological construct, a “rubbery thing,” as the Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman puts it.
There’s often a pretty significant disconnect between the substantial “truth” of time – as measured by atomic clocks – and how it feels. Time seems to race or drag according to what’s going on around us.
What transpired in the early months of the pandemic was unprecedented in our lifetimes. Everything was novel. And novelty, psychologists have found, stretches time. Things that surprise us seize our attention, and gobble neural energy as the memories are processed. And that makes the weird episodes in our lives, as we reflect on them later, seem to have lasted much longer than they actually did.
Our brains are lazy – er, efficient. When they encounter something familiar, they kind of stop taking notes. Been there, done that. “See yesterday,” the brain jots in the margin, thereby preserving space for the next bit of real news – i.e., something different.
Those crazy, anxious early days of COVID-19 – the alarming numbers out of Iran and Italy, the chaos of everyone’s plans suddenly collapsing – were intense. And intensity of feeling, it turns out, pumps even more molasses into the temporal gears. It may have felt like a Michael Bay movie while it was happening, but in the brain’s director’s cut, it’s more like a Merchant Ivory film, the whole thing unfolding at the speed of a lazy river.
No wonder life B.C. – before COVID-19 – seems like eons ago.
But around late April or early May there was that shift. We started getting used to the weirdness. The shock of working from home and tracking the infection spikes and banging a pot in the evening began to wear off. Routine took hold (at least for those of us lucky enough not to be on the health care front lines). There were fewer unusual events to snag our attention and slow time, so the days started zipping by again.
This is all a fairly new discovery, this elastic property of the sense of time.
In the 1930s, an American physiologist named Hudson Hoagland was attending to his wife as she lay sick in bed with the flu. He nipped away from her bedside for a few moments and then returned, whereupon she remarked: “Where have you been? You’ve been away for ages!” Something was distorting her sense of time. Dr. Hoagland suspected the fever. Could it be there was some kind of clock in the human central nervous system – a chemical pacemaker that can be nudged by outside factors, like, in this case, heat? (Subsequent studies support Dr. Hoagland’s hunch that time slows as our core body temperature rises. So if you thought that Bikram yoga class would never end, now you know why.)
Today it’s clear there’s not just one internal clock governing our judgment of time; multiple systems work in concert. Dr. Hoagland’s original sleuthing sent us down a rabbit hole that is vastly deeper and windier than anyone suspected.
What’s interesting is that, while much of the variation in how we judge time is situational, some of it is not. One constant appears to be our age. Per the cliché, time actually does fly as we get older, studies suggests. This has always made me a little bit envious of kids, in their unleaky little boats. They never seem to lose whole days, let alone accidentally start writing the wrong decade on a cheque. It has been wild, during the pandemic, to think of our nuclear family holed up under the same roof, riding out this historical event together but experiencing it – the pace of it – quite differently.
Science cannot fully explain the generational discrepancy, but a few things may be going on.
One is, again, that novelty factor. Kids are relative newcomers to this planet, so they are still routinely surprised by stuff, and their brains work hard to sort it out. And since each passing hour is a larger proportion of a child’s short life, it may feel longer and more significant. Plus, kids’ attention and memory circuits are still growing, so the transmission of information may actually be physically slower, drawing time out even more.
Another possible ingredient in the mix: digital media. Gen Z is not exactly waiting on the pier for the next instalment of Charles Dickens’s new novel to arrive by boat. They have lived their whole life, as the writer Venkatesh Rao put it, “inside a cage of time made up of 32 satellites orbiting Earth.” What the young want – TV shows, songs, commodities – is available any time, and always has been. So: Less time spent reminiscing plus less time spent anticipating means more time moored in the present. We might guess – from other research – that this too puts the brakes on time.
In the early going of the pandemic, my wife and I got a wee inkling of what it might feel like to be a kid. We were jacked in to their time signature. Too bad it was mostly because we were overloading our circuits being stressed out and rolling the dice on what to do and which experts to believe; the lazy river was full of crocodiles. But as the weeks passed, and normalcy set in, the gulf between the generations began to open again. Time sped up as we calmed down, while they continued on their unhurried course. The kids seemed chill, for the most part – although much more was going on inside their heads.
There is a new word in circulation, hatched not from the neuroscience labs but from the jittery zeitgeist. The word is “shadowtime.” As defined by its creators, it is “a feeling of living in two distinctly different temporal scales simultaneously.” It’s as if two clocks are ticking at once – real time and existential time.
To use it in a sentence: “Kane was intently working on his presentation that was due the next morning, but as he looked up and saw the moon it occurred to him that the moon had been rising and setting for 4.5 billion years, moving ever farther away. He felt shadowtime for the rest of the evening.”
The word was coined by the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, a California-based conceptual art project, so it’s definitely more felicity than science. But it does capture the real and uncomfortable disconnect of having to navigate life, in its humdrum detail, while an environmental sword of Damocles dangles overhead. There’s some evidence that younger people sense the anxious doomsday countdown more acutely. They have more skin in the game, after all; it’s their future.
But there’s nothing like approaching one’s own personal expiry date to inject each passing moment with meaning. Gerontologists have found that older people, so long as they aren’t suffering, tend to positively cherish time. “The elders view time like a member of a desert tribe views water,” Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University, told me. “They can’t believe we would ever squander such a precious resource.” To younger people they counsel: “Think small.” Pay attention. Take delight in the hummingbird suspended outside your window. Relish your enchiladas – and the person who just laid them on the table in front of you.
To the extent that it stretches time, paying attention becomes a kind of investment plan.
Maybe the last reliable one we have left.