Why time feels so weird right now
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Why time feels so weird right now

Several different clocks melt and warp into unreadable blobs.Zac Freeland/Vox

March was 30 years long and April was 30 minutes long. What gives? We talked to a time philosopher to find out.

Wait. What happened to April?

If you’re at all like me, you might have flipped over your wall calendar to May (because if you’re at all like me, you have several wall calendars) and felt a perplexing confusion. How is it that a whole month could have disappeared into the gaping maw of quarantine, especially after March felt like it dragged on for (conservatively) 72 years.

There has to be a reason for this disorienting sense that time is malleable and inconsistent. Right?

I decided to find out. So I called up Dr. Adrian Bardon, a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University and the author of the book A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time, as well as the co-editor (with Valtteri Arstila, Sean Power, and Argiro Vatakis) of the book The Illusions of Time: Philosophical and Psychological Essays on Timing and Time Perception. I keep referring to him as “the time man,” which is probably a label he would find too reductive.

Regardless, Bardon is somebody who studies the “philosophy of time,” which is to say he studies how the many, many psychological processes that make up our understanding of time affect the way we see the world — a.k.a. why March could feel so long and April could feel so short. When I talked to him, he clarified for me why so much of this quarantine period feels so endless in the moment and like it’s flown by in retrospect, but also all of the ways that I and others perceive time and how those perceptions shift based on our situation.

We also talked about how people working in high-stress jobs right now might be experiencing time differently, how children are having less of a problem adjusting than their parents, and how some of the feelings evoked by quarantine can mimic the experience of people who struggle with depression.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Emily VanDerWerff

So time feels really variable at the moment. March seemingly lasted 30 years, and then April lasted about 30 minutes, at least to my mind. Do you have theories as to why?

Adrian Bardon

I totally know what you mean. I strongly suspect this is almost a universal feeling — the quarantine is going on forever, but the days are flying by. You end up with this very confused sense that it’s going by so fast, but oh my God, when will this end?

What I really want to stress is the following, by way of prefacing what the data shows on this question: What we call internal time, or subjective time, is very complex. There’s no such thing as one internal clock that we then compare to an external clock. Our brains are these really complex ad hoc systems that are doing a lot of functions at the same time. They’re constantly integrating information and coordinating action.

So what we call our internal clock is actually a whole bunch of internal clocks. We’ve got multiple systems, all of them influencing the subjective perception of time. We’ve got systems just for regulating our bodily functions like our sleep cycle. We’re constantly interpreting and synchronizing multiple sensory modalities — our auditory information has to be integrated into and synchronized with what we’re seeing visually, for example. We’re constantly switching our attention and regulating attention. We’re constantly integrating memories and our anticipations into making plans and performing critical actions.

So there’s a lot of stuff going on all at the same time that all have to do with our internal sense of the passage of time. And with all that complexity, it’s no wonder that sometimes our sense of the passage of time can get weird, under weird circumstances, when we’re in a weird mood.

Emily VanDerWerff

Obviously, extended quarantine due to a global pandemic is one of those weird circumstances. But is there something that maybe sets it apart or makes it different from other weird circumstances?

Adrian Bardon

Time perception is a very complex field of study, but there are some general factors that we know have the biggest influence on time perception, and they are getting engaged here in this quarantine situation.

Subjective time perception mainly has to do with the combination of emotion and attention. The type of emotion that we experience affects the type of attention that we have to pay, in combination with our external circumstances. When we’re relaxed and engaging in some kind of routine or productive activity, we’re experiencing what psychologists call flow. Flow is this relaxed, outward-directed attention, and it can be pleasant and calming. That’s exactly when you say that you lose yourself. [Flow can result from] different activities for different people. It could be knitting or carpentry or playing an instrument or golfing or yoga.

Being in this quarantine situation also involves demands on our attention, but they’re different kinds of demands on our attention. No matter what your life situation is at this point, you’re probably experiencing some kind of stress and anxiety, and your routine is disrupted. You’re probably not doing what you normally would do. You’ve been broken out of your routine and broken out of flow.

So what we wind up with is the opposite of flow: negative, inward-directed attention under what we call cognitive load. That is to say: having a lot of stuff on your mind. The psychological opposite of flow is called rumination. That’s repetitive, obsessive, negative thoughts about the situation and tasks you’re engaged in. So this state of rumination is closely associated with subjective reports of time slowing down and dragging by.

You mentioned this kind of paradoxical thing: We feel that time is dragging, but it’s also flying by. That comes out of the same situation. We’re out of our routine. We’re out of our structure. We’re out of doing tasks that we would normally feel productive and good about. It’s more like we’re treading water or trying to deal with situations we don’t want to deal with. And then in our retrospective judgment of the passage of time, it seems like things went by really quickly because we didn’t really accomplish anything.

There’s a difference between our experience of the duration of time as it’s happening and our retrospective judgment as to the passage of time. Those things can sometimes coincide with each other and sometimes they can diverge. In this case, the combination of negative emotion and inward-directed attention makes your moment-to-moment life seem intolerable and burdensome. When we look back on our day, we say, “Where did the day go? Nothing got done.” Or we look at the month, and we say, “Where did April go? It’s May already?”

As I mentioned, there’s no single subjective time measure. It’s a big, complex system. And what we have right now is, our different systems are sort of giving us different information about the passage of time.

Emily VanDerWerff

Let me try to summarize what you’ve said to see if I can wrap my brain around it. March felt longer to people because you could look back to the first half of March, before we were in quarantine, and say, “Oh, all of this stuff happened.” And in the second half of March, people were forced out of their routines, their flow. But April has been the same thing over and over, and retroactively, it feels much shorter. Do I have that more or less?

Adrian Bardon

Of course, it varies from individual to individual. But yeah, sure. In March, you were able to have more outward-directed attention. There was more stuff going on outside of your house and projects you could do. In April, everyone settled into the stuck-at-home situation. The more you do it, the more you’re in that situation, the more you start ruminating. You’re literally chewing over the things that are bothering you.

We know from studies in cognitive science that if you put people in a stressful situation — we study people who are experiencing depression, we study people who are impulsive and not able to focus — all those groups will subjectively report that time periods take longer, particularly when they’re not doing anything productive. They will estimate after the fact that it was a really long time and it was actually unpleasant.

The personality type has a little bit to do with this. People who are more fatalistic in outlook or people who are relaxed and content in their job and productive activities will have a lot less of that experience of time dragging along.

Emily VanDerWerff

I do wonder how these feelings might differ for someone who’s a grocery store worker or someone else who’s really busy but also in a dangerous situation right now. How might their experience differ from that of someone in the professional class?

Adrian Bardon

You’ve got grocery store workers, front-line health care workers, restaurant delivery drivers. They’re all very busy, and usually, when you’re really busy, time can seem to fly by. But they’re all, I presume, also experiencing a lot of stress, and the negative emotion suffuses the work they’re doing, I’m surmising. So while they’re doing the work, there’s probably anxious thoughts about themselves, about their jobs, about their families, and that makes time drag by.

We do need studies for this. I got a questionnaire yesterday from a colleague of mine at the University of Athens who runs an organization called the Timing Research Forum. They’re doing a longitudinal study right now where people will fill out questionnaires about their subjective experience over time in quarantine and about other things like the quality of their sleep, which is definitely a factor that can create more of this negative effect. So we’re in the process of collecting that information.

Emily VanDerWerff

How does quality of sleep affect how we perceive time?

Adrian Bardon

Our so-called internal clocks are confused. Confusion is the order of the day here. So it’s also affecting our circadian rhythms, and lots of people are complaining about sleep. Our timing systems are all off, and that disrupts our normal sleep-wake regulatory cycle. And then that feeds on itself because there’s no better time for ruminating and having negative thoughts than when you’re lying in bed in the middle of the night and you can’t sleep.

So the order of the day is all about this internal confusion and our feelings of the duration of the day and our rapid retrospective judgments to the passage of time are getting pushed and pulled in multiple ways all at once. We’re experiencing negative emotions, time slows down. We are burdened by complex processing tasks, time speeds up. But if a lot of the complex processing is inward-directed, time slows down, and not much gets accomplished in a satisfactory way. Then if time speeds up, we’re experiencing all these factors at the same time. It’s a big, massive, internal confusion. And then we don’t sleep well.

Emily VanDerWerff

A lot of my friends are quarantined with their kids. What do we know about how younger humans might be experiencing this disruption in their schedules?

Adrian Bardon

I can respond to that anecdotally. There’s evidence being collected on this live, but I’m actually dealing with my own young children, and I’m dealing online with my 18- to 22-year-old college students.

The younger children in my experience are not terribly burdened by this whole situation because children experience flow very easily. They sit down with their Matchbox cars, and they lose themselves in their imagined world with their cars. That’s what is relaxing and calming, and that helps time fly by. You say, “Hey, it’s time for bed,” and they say, “No, I just started playing!” But they’ve been doing it for two hours.

Now, my students, I have to say, my impression of them, having been meeting with them for a number of weeks now online, they’re looking pretty grim. They’re complaining about how there’s nothing to do. My impression is that they’re doing a lot of ruminating, and they’re worried about the future. They’re distressed by their lack of activity in the present, so they’re acting more like adults who are all too aware of the things that are to be worried about. So they don’t experience as much this sense of being lost in pleasurable activities.

That’s what I keep encouraging them to do, although it’s also incredibly difficult. I’m not really doing a good job of following my own advice! I keep thinking the best advice is to get involved in some constructive projects that you enjoy, hobbies and things like that. Learn to play the guitar or something. But I personally keep intending to do that, but then I get distracted. It’s tough. This whole situation is a focus killer.

Emily VanDerWerff

A lot of people are sheltering in place with someone else. How are our own perceptions of time influenced by the people around us? Does that happen at all?

Adrian Bardon

There’s a lot of variables there. Obviously, if it’s a good relationship, that’s going to help. How often can you have conversations and activities with the other person that you enjoy, so you can forget about your problems for a while? It’s kind of obvious. We know that when we’re feeling down, we want to get away and forget about things for a while. That’s good. That’s relaxing. Your partner or your family can help you do that, or they can hinder you, in the sense that you might be trying to get into a project, and they’re constantly making demands on your time and distracting you. No offense to my children. [Laughs.] I love them to death, but it’s almost impossible to do anything for five seconds.

It’s precisely that getting into a project and doing it for a while, in terms of time perception, is really the best thing to do right now. So your family and your partner can either help or hinder depending on how things are going.

Ideally, to the extent that you can, there are other obvious suggestions like get outside, get some exercise, have positive interactions with human beings. But in terms of this sense of the quarantine going on forever and these feelings of confusion and anxiety, projects that you can lose yourself in and then you can look back and feel a sense of accomplishment — you can feel like that was time well spent.

Emily VanDerWerff

Do you have a sense of how the experience of quarantine might affect our perceptions of time if it stretches on for months and months — which hopefully it won’t?

Adrian Bardon

I wouldn’t be super optimistic about people’s mood getting better over time under those circumstances. It’s going to be very context-specific in terms of what the individual’s situation is, how much stress they’re experiencing, what they’re doing with their day. If you’re sitting around on the couch all day long and just thinking, you’re going to have a bad time, and the longer it goes on, the worse it’s going to get.

I’m very concerned about people who already had preexisting mental health conditions. I’m very concerned about domestic violence situations. I’m very concerned about what statistics are going to look like in retrospect. I really am.

But there’s the flip side of that, too: A lot of people seem to be taking up gourmet cooking and doing things with themselves. That’s much healthier.

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