The Pandemic Time-Warp Explained

A scientific explanation as to why your sense of time is distorted and how to correct it.

Ono Mergen
Jan 8 · 7 min read
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Illustration by the author

t’s a Friday afternoon, or so I thought. I sit in my living room, ordering Black Friday offers from a clothing brand. “Wasn’t Black Friday two weeks ago?” I think to myself as someone calls me. It is a supplier for my company. At the end of the call, I tell her to have a lovely weekend. “Weekend?” she chuckles. I make a noncommittal grunt. “It’s Monday today,” she replies.

Don’t look at your phone! What day is it?

The whole world seems to have a case of dyschronometria, — without the cerebral damage, of course. Dyschronometria is a condition that comes with distorted time perception. And frankly, our experience of time has been nothing but distorted lately. No wonder #Blursday enjoys steady popularity.

While the pandemic effects landed unequally geographically and depending on class and race, the perceived distortions in time seem strangely universal.

Living through a pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns, our days ooze into each other, the months lurch ahead. The activities we can do are limited in a limited space. Week after week feels the same and becomes a blur.

That said, join me on a physics, psychology, and literature-based quest to make sense of the often surreal changes in our time perception. After all, time perception matters immensely, because it is the experience of time that roots us in our mental reality.

300 days of March 2020

One way or another, the pandemic not only uprooted our routines but our sense of reality with them.

It doesn’t help that whenever we look at the news, it doesn’t look like the news anymore. The world’s events seem like a surreal show concocted by a scribe of imaginative writers with dark humor and an unusual knack for satire. All that against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic.

As for me, I was never really one for knowing the days of the week or the exact date. But time has passed differently for me since the pandemic started.

For the first time in years, I was to stay in one place for who knows how long. Slowly, weeks became months, and soon it will be a year. And, given the state of events in the world today, the pandemic doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.

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The Magic Mountain and Time Paradoxes

For seven years, I have organized my memories according to locations. Sometimes according to projects I worked on. Everyone does it; we bracket experiences and put them in the right folder. It helps us navigate through life.

The way we live warps the way we experience time. The days slowed down for many of us, but as we look back, it seems insane that we’ve lived in a pandemic for almost a year. Where did that year go?

“The way we live warps the way we experience time.”

The time discrepancies in my life made me think of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. The last time I read it, I was about fourteen. What stuck with me to this day was what Mann wrote about time passing.

He mused on how time passes with a grueling slowness when we wait for it to pass or do something monotonous or unpleasant. When we are inside the tedious and tiresome experience, it seems to last forever. And yet, when we look back, the whole thing seems like a blink of an eye.

On the other hand, time races when we have varied, exciting experiences, or go on adventures, do meaningful work, and are surrounded by amazing people. After all, science has proven that time does indeed fly when we have fun.

This is where it gets interesting. Looking back, a day’s experience can look like a week worth of adventures.

The most enchanting of time warp experiences might be what some neuroscientists call The Holiday Paradox: the contradictory feeling that a great holiday seems to whiz by, yet feels much longer when you look back. Daniel Kahneman explains the paradox with the clash of the experiencing and remembering self.

“The Holiday Paradox is caused by the fact that we view time in our minds in two very different ways — prospectively and retrospectively. Usually, these two perspectives match up, but it is in all the circumstances where we remark on the strangeness of time that they don’t.

“We constantly use both prospective and retrospective estimation to gauge time’s passing. Usually, they are in equilibrium, but notable experiences disturb that equilibrium, sometimes dramatically. This is also the reason we never get used to it, and never will. We will continue to perceive time in two ways and continue to be struck by its strangeness every time we go on holiday.”

Reading The Magic Mountain was a formative experience for me. It was the first time I came up with the idea of striving to live multiple lives in just one lifetime.

“Many false conceptions are held concerning the nature of tedium,” Mann notes. “In general, it is thought that the interestingness and novelty of the time-content are what ‘make the time pass’; that is to say, shorten it; whereas monotony and emptiness check and restrain its flow.”

But this, Mann observes, is only partly true. “Vacuity, monotony, have, indeed, the property of lingering out the moment and the hour and of making them tiresome. But they are capable of contracting and dissipating the larger, the very large time units, to the point of reducing them to nothing at all.”

At the same time, “a full and interesting content can put wings to the hour and the day; yet it will lend to the general passage of time a weightiness, a breadth and solidity which cause the eventful years to flow far more slowly than those poor, bare, empty ones over which the wind passes and they are gone. Thus what we call tedium is rather an abnormal shortening of the time consequent upon monotony.”

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Why Time Slows Down When We Are Afraid

According to some studies, we pay more attention to threats. Those studies show that scary or stressful experiences tend to feel longer. In the study linked, they tested the subject’s reactions to threatening, neutral and friendly faces. Subjects reported seeing the unfriendly or upset faces for longer. In reality, the faces appeared for equal amounts of time.

The point? Attention is biased toward threatening objects or faces.

When there is a threatening widespread pandemic confining millions into their homes, causing economic downfall, conspiracies, deaths and the loss of all sense of relative security, our brains will consider it a threat, and focus on it. This perpetual anxiety makes our heart rates higher and, thus, time seems to stretch out.

Uncertainty and Time

When I moved to a different country every year, there was always an endpoint for my trip, and I would be gone soon. With the pandemic, we all deal with a lot of uncertainty, and we can’t see the endpoint. Not having an endpoint makes time stretch on seemingly infinitely. No one knows if we are still at the beginning or closer to the end. We don’t even know if there will be an end.

Confinement doesn’t help. The less varied our lives are, the less dopamine our brains produce. As a result, time is both seemingly long and short. It’s waxing and waning.

But as Aristotle once mused, time is the measure of change. We are quite capable of change even in confinement and with a limited number of things to do. A lot of our well-being comes from our routine and day-to-day activities.

Time’s elasticity has perplexed humanity forever. For those of us locked up, time drags by and doesn’t add up to much. While for those of us on the frontlines, time passes with breakneck speed, only to find each month seeming longer than the previous one as memories stack up against each other.

I have worked from home during my entire professional life, so I wanted to share some foolproof tactics I use to stay on top of my tasks while keeping myself grounded and connected to reality.

  • Have a solid routine, but add curiosities to serve as landmarks. Let’s say attend a virtual wine tasting event with friends, or go on a virtual museum tour. Think outside of the box and “go on” quarantine safe adventures.
  • Nature, nature, nature. According to several studies; people often underestimate how much better nature will make them feel. Can’t you go hiking? Just immersing yourself in the beauty of your local park or houseplants has incredible effects too.
  • If this is your first time working from home, make sure to have a designated work area. It can be as little as a small table in the corner. What matters here is to have it separated from other parts of your life. If you work from your dining table, just changing seats can be powerful to help you feel like you are now “at work”.
  • Mini breaks and movement breaks will help you keep up motivation and serve as anchor points in the seemingly endless river of time.

We are scared the virus might drag on forever or that it might end things for us abruptly. My last and best advice?

Only worry about the things you have control over. Zen, Buddhist, and Stoic philosophers agree. Letting go of things we can’t control is a path to less anxiety, and maybe even contentment. And remember:

“We are time. We are this space, this clearing opened by the trace of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia. We are longing for a future that will not come” — Carlo Rovelli

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Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Ono Mergen

Written by

Environmental scientist& entrepreneur. Moving countries yearly to explore the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. 🌍 Top writer 📬ono@onoceans.com

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Ono Mergen

Written by

Environmental scientist& entrepreneur. Moving countries yearly to explore the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. 🌍 Top writer 📬ono@onoceans.com

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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