Fast, without looking at a calendar: what day is it? Are you sure?
If you can’t answer with confidence, you’re not the only one to feel this way. Even psychologists who study the perception of time have felt their days oozing into each other. “I experienced it myself,” says Duke University psychologist and neuroscientist Kevin LaBar. “As this drags on, and as your day becomes very limited by your limited environment, the days come together.”
The stressful events around the world that limit everyone to their homes are not exactly common, so researchers like LaBar don’t know exactly how the current pandemic will distort someone’s time perception. But other investigations into negative emotions and timing may provide some clues, as well as some ways to cope.
Most experiments that try to untangle our feelings from our sense of time look at short intervals, like seconds or minutes of strong emotions, says LaBar. Such studies show that frightening or stressful experiences tend to feel longer. People who see neutral and threatening faces in a laboratory scenario, for example, report seeing their shocked face longer. In fact, faces have appeared for equal periods of time.
When researchers examine people’s brain activity in response to these places, they see that we do devote more attention to what is in front of us when it is threatening, Says LaBar. The attention of the frightening incidents may explain why they seem to last longer. If something alarming requires more mental resources, then we look back and feel that the meeting must have taken longer – it took all those investments after all.
Read more: The arrow of time? It’s all in our heads
Constantly worrying about coronavirus could pull a similar trick on our brain, thinks LaBar. “You are dedicating more of your resources, both attention and memory resources, to processing information about the event,” he says. “This increases the feeling that it lasts longer.”
Another theory that stressful periods drag the hinges on a different biological shift. Some psychologists think humans have the feeling of an internal clock ticking at a regular pace. Anxiety or fear accelerates that essential rhythm in our bodies. In a stressful moment, we don’t know how much time goes by, says LaBar. The only metric we have is how often this driving rhythm beats. We are used to the slower pulse of moments of calm, so when we try to remember how long the anxiety lasted, we might think it took longer because our watch accelerated at that moment. So far, there is some research supporting this concept, says LaBar.
If it is not enough to think that our most stressful moments are dragging on, these days we also have less distractions than before. Our brains love being able to get new information, says LaBar. Going to lunch, too, can serve to stimulate enough and satisfy that desire. But now we all spend most of our time at home. “When you’re in a limited environment, your brain doesn’t get so many dopamine spatters that keep it busy and excited, and the brain ends up in this idle mode,” says LaBar.
If we don’t give the brain something to do, we tend to think about ourselves – and the current global health crisis seems like a convenient problem for the mind to think about. Repeatedly worrying about the same topic “can make it seem like you’ve invested longer, because in reality you’re just restarting these pandemic thought processes,” says LaBar.
It is difficult, but try to think of something else
A clear way to stop this cycle – and perhaps make things feel like they are going at a normal pace again – is simply to find something to do. Calling loved ones and taking walks can be a great way to redirect your mind to something else, says LaBar.
And the classic language that “time flies when you’re having fun” is supported by research, explains Annett Schirmer, a brain science researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, via email. “The way we perceive time depends on where we focus our attention. If we position it in time, time passes more slowly. However, if our attention is caught by something else, time can fly because its passage is less noticeable. “
Schirmer also points out that interrupted programs and new activities, such as taking care of children at work, could also affect our sense of time. LaBar says it may be helpful to bring some of that structure back into your life – maybe just do certain activities on certain days of the week or get up at the same time every day.
Even regular habits can keep the sleep cycle functioning properly, he points out, and sleep could improve the sense of time. Quality rest helps create memories, and it may be more difficult to remember what your days are like without a good break to cement that time in your brain. “You’re trying to remember this period of time compared to the period before the pandemic,” he says, “but if you don’t have good memories of what those things are, then that too can create some distortion.”
For now, LaBar and Schirmer say that these explanations for our deformed sense of time are still speculations. Schirmer warns that the complex relationship between emotion and time could mean that other factors could arise in pandemic-related behaviors that researchers have not yet identified.
This is in part why LaBar and his lab are collecting survey data this week on how people are facing so much widespread uncertainty. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, polls found that people could help manage their anxiety on the situation – such as concerns about when the panic would end or when there would be a vaccine – solving problems in smaller ways. Finding and making masks, understanding how to distance oneself in the workplace or planning a better approach to home education could help people cope with greater uncertainties, says LaBar. His team is collecting data to see if they can replicate the results of the H1N1 study.
After all, many of the biggest questions we have about the pandemic revolve around time – and large and distant intervals are more difficult for us to understand. “We are in an uncharted territory in terms of science of the times something so long,” adds LaBar.