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Sunday 11 June 2023 Dublin: 14°C
# the times we live in
Why the start of the pandemic might feel like a million years ago rather than just one
We speak to an expert on humans perception of time.

dublin scenes 564 Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

THE ABOVE PICTURE was taken in March 2019.

What was your life like back then? Can you remember the course of the following few months?

I’m sure the details are a bit hazy, but you can probably recall the ebb and flow of holidays and work, birthdays and anniversaries, nights out and weekends in.

You’re likely able to trace the year right up to Christmas 2019, then a grey January 2020, a grey February, and a dark March.

Below is roughly the same spot on Grafton Street, a year or so on from the first photo.

4708 Covid-19 Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

What do you remember from after that point, once the country was put into lockdown? It can be hard to put it into words. Maybe it feels like a long, flat line stretching on forever or a jumbled mess of emotions and stress that passed by in seconds.

Studies have shown that the past year of lockdowns and restrictions on day-to-day life has distorted our perception of time, but the experience isn’t uniform.

Dr Ruth Ogden, an academic specialising in experimental psychology at Liverpool John Moores University, seized 2020 as an unprecedented research opportunity.

Her work focuses on how humans perceive the passage of time.

Time slows down

Take, for instance, our response to a crisis. We can’t fully explain why eyewitness accounts of any crisis event are full of reports of a feeling that time slowed down in the heat of the moment.

“Somewhere in our evolution, it became advantageous for us to have this flexible sense of time,” Ogden told The explanation is likely simple: the sensation gives us more time to gauge what is going on around us and prepare a response.

Ogden has carried out three surveys to examine the pandemic’s impact on our sense of how much time is passing, two in the United Kingdom and one in Argentina (one is available here, while the others are under review).

The results were split uniformly: 20% of people felt as though time was passing at a normal speed, 40% felt it was passing faster, and 40% felt it was passing slower.

However, “occupation, cohabitation status, perceived risk to Covid-19, anxiety, level of physical activity and the extent to which daily life has changed due to the lockdown” were not factors in deciding what speed someone perceived time to be passing.

The primary factors influencing this during the first UK lockdown in March 2020 were age, satisfaction with social interactions (be it face-to-face or otherwise), and how busy and stressed the person was.

“I generally found that if you’re over the age of 60, so if you’re older, lockdowns are passing more slowly for you,” Ogden said.

Lockdown passed more quickly for people who were satisfied with social interactions and a lot more slowly for people who weren’t. 
I thought that was really interesting because that was the thing we lost during lockdown, didn’t we? All of a sudden we couldn’t just interact with other people.

What can we deduce from this? It might not come as a surprise: the societal upheaval itself didn’t impact our perception of time passing, but more routine factors such as keeping busy and occupied.

Ogden suggests that without frequent social interaction – even just a call to a friend or Zoom drinks – it’s almost freeing up our brain’s capacity to focus on time passing, which makes it seem longer.

It comes back to the idea that time flies when you’re having fun. It does – because our attention is not on time, it’s on the fun.

Mental health

For the second UK lockdown in October 2020, the deciding factors changed. In contrast to the previous spell of tight restrictions, the mental health profile of the population had deteriorated:

Again, the lockdown was passing more quickly for people who have good social interaction, but our level of depression was also predictive. The lockdown passed more slowly for people with a greater level of depression, and more quickly for people who are less depressed.
People are experiencing the strain of long term lockdown, and that’s influencing the way in which we can see the world around us in all sorts of ways.

The study results in Argentina skewed more towards people reporting that time passed quicker, which could be down to factors such as more frequent pivots in and out of restrictions or larger family units, meaning more frequent social interaction.

One result from the studies may clash with our own assessment of the past year.

Regardless of how quickly or slowly it feels like individual days or weeks are passing, how long ago does this time last year feel? Were weeks and days fast but the year long?

When the second UK survey was conducted in October, most people said the first lockdown felt longer than eight months ago, regardless of the even 40-40 split in fast vs slow. Ogden explained:

When we’re looking back on time and trying to decide how long something lasted for, we search our memory and we unconsciously check how many things we can remember from that period of time.
How many memories we have influences how long we think a period of time.

This means that although lockdown may have felt either boring and drawn out, or quick and a blur, Ogden said the results suggest that our brains were creating lots of memories due to the unique nature of what was going on, as we adapted to a new way of life and new daily practices while dealing with the stress of everything that was going on.

Life has changed so much that we have actually created lots of new memory content, and that seems to be making people feel like it was a very long year.

A further survey could yield more interesting results yet – will the third lockdown pass more quickly as we’re used to it, or slower because people are putting less time and effort into distractions like Zoom quizzes?

In January 2022, will the latter half of 2020 and the early months of 2021 feel like a blur because we stopped creating as many new memories?

In the meantime, Ogden’s advice on how to stave off long, boring days in lockdown is simple: Social contact – face-to-face, over Zoom, in a text message, whatever way is safe, legal or comfortable – but more importantly, routine.

Routine, routine – routine.

“Make your Monday different to your Tuesday and different to your Wednesday,” Ogden said.

This can be as simple as doing your shopping on a particular day, calling a friend on a particular day, or even just bringing back Casual Friday.

Humans love routine. We all like to think that we’re this sort of like free spirit who does what we want when we want, but really, our brain loves routine. It loves to get up at the same time every day, it wants to eat at the same time every day, and it wants a day to feel like particular days, so we need artificially create that for ourselves during lockdown.

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