How COVID Warped Our Sense of Time
How the pandemic has skewed our sense of weeks and years and days.
I’ve always had a good memory, at least in an autobiographical sense. In my little group of old-time friends, I’m the one everybody calls when they can’t remember who it was that threw up on the bus in fourth grade. (Shout-out, Abby G.!) I’m the one who, 33 years on, can still sing the entire (problematic) chorus to the song we learned about the Civil War. In my family, the joke is that I remember my own birth, which isn’t accurate but is pretty close, and I can tell you not only every embarrassing thing I’ve ever said or done, but where I was, who I was with and what I was wearing when I said or did it. It’s a gift.
Given all that, it’s been wildly disorienting to realize that everything that’s happened for the past two and a half years is an absolute muddle in my brain. What did we do for Christmas last December? When did my firstborn lose his first (and second, and third) tooth? Did we really go 16 months without seeing my parents?
Some memories from these pandemic years are sharply vivid; others feel as hazy as an old film reel, more like impressions of having done things than memories of actually doing them. Almost all of them are untethered from anything like chronology, just bobbing around together in a two-year-old pandemic stew.
COVID has warped my sense of the passage of time in deeper ways, too. The past few years have dragged on for eons, for lifetimes. Is it possible that once, I didn’t grab a mask every time I left the house? I can hardly fathom it. And yet pre-pandemic 2019 feels so recent. For instance: That summer, I drove to Brooklyn to celebrate my friend’s 47th birthday. I haven’t been to New York since. Every detail feels fresh, crisp and defined — we ate hoagies (mine was tuna); we drank rosé in the park; his dog was a menace. If you asked, I’d swear under oath it was last summer. But wait, no. This summer, we celebrated my friend’s 50th. So: Time has flown, yet that same time has crawled. Time has lost all meaning.
A friend with whom I’ve talked about this sensation recently sent me a snippet of a book she’s reading — the latest Sally Rooney novel, published in 2021. In the excerpt, one character is writing to another during lockdown:
Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of our lives? Time dissolving into a thick dark fog, things that happened last week seeming years ago, and things that happened last year feeling like yesterday.
“So it’s very much NOT just us,” my friend noted. But I knew it wasn’t just us, because almost everyone you talk to about this topic can offer up some personal temporal weirdness. One friend describes putting on shirts he bought in 2018 and still thinking of them as new. (“Only I also worry they’re out of style,” he says.) A neighbor told me she can’t remember when it was that she started drinking every day or when she stopped drinking every day, only that both these things happened during the pandemic. Another friend told me that while she was planning her daughter’s birthday party, the girl matter-of-factly mentioned that this was her third COVID birthday. No, no, my friend told her: It was her second. “And then I realized, oh my God, it is her third COVID birthday. It’s like my brain didn’t want to believe it. Too distressing to think about that passage of time.”
I get that, especially as it relates to our kids’ lives. In addition to the everyday “They’re growing up too fast” cliché, there’s this new sense that these years are somehow exempt from the normal laws of time and memory — that all of it is in danger of being lost to the thick dark fog.
Intellectually, this doesn’t track, I know. Time itself doesn’t change; this isn’t the Twilight Zone. And thanks to COVID’s many disruptions, I’ve actually spent extra (extra, extra) time with my children. We haven’t lost memory-making moments; we’ve gained them. And yet there it is, this nagging notion that one day, I’ll look back on these strange years like a coma patient who’s finally come out of it: It was 2019, and then — blink, blink — it’s suddenly 2023, and, man, what a long, weird dream I had.
Human beings have always understood that our brains play tricks on us when it comes to how we experience the passage of time — how it flies when we’re having fun, how watched pots never boil and so forth. “The days are long, but the years are short,” people tell new parents, and that certainly feels true, though “it’s been the reverse of that during COVID,” one mom recently remarked to me. That also feels true.
But what’s surprising once you delve even a little into the science here is just how easily our perception of time can be toyed with, and how much more than just boredom or busyness comes into play. Ever been in a car wreck and felt like those five seconds lasted for five minutes? A famous neuroscientist named David Eagleman (who is, I should note, not just neuroscience-famous, but New York Times best-selling author-famous and host of Emmy-winning PBS series-famous) looked into this phenomenon some 15 years ago. He wondered whether that sensation maybe had to do with the brain taking in more information than usual in those busy, fraught moments. To test this, he took human subjects and dropped them off a 15-story amusement-park tower in Texas. As they plunged 150 feet into a net below, they were asked to respond to computerized prompts.
What he found was that people’s brains responded normally during the fall. There was no Matrix moment; they didn’t process any more information falling than they did just standing there. After the fall, however, when asked to use a stopwatch to show how long the drop felt, people had an average guess of four seconds — 36 percent longer than the actual 2.6-second drop. The “slowing” of time, Eagleman realized, wasn’t in the moment itself, but in the memory of the moment.
Time and memory are deeply intertwined, he would write: Our brains use memories to decide how much time has gone by. In a dire situation, your brain tends to kick itself up a notch to record every bit of new “data,” every detail. And replaying so much new data in your brain leads you to conclude that more moments must have passed than actually did. This principle doesn’t just apply to scary or emotional events, either. Remember how summer lasted forever when you were a kid? When you’re young, everything is new, Eagleman points out. And all that new, dense and unfamiliar data gives the impression of time just taking longer. In other words? Novelty makes time slow down.
Fascinating, right? That’s what journalist, designer and filmmaker Matt Danzico thought, too. Danzico grew up in Scranton but currently lives about six hours in the future, in Barcelona. He’s done fascinating work for the Discovery Channel, BBC News and NBC (among others), and he’s covered everything from the pandemic’s effect on American politics to transportation in India to, yes, time perception. In 2013, he produced a fascinating video short titled An Exercise in Time Perception — you can still watch it on TED-Ed — but his interest in the topic started a few years before that, when he actually met David Eagleman. The two hit it off and got to talking about Eagleman’s work. It gave Danzico an idea. He was about to celebrate his 29th birthday. If he did something new, something novel, something unusual every day, could he manipulate his perception of time to make his 29th year the longest of his life? Put off 30 a little longer?
Danzico called the project “The Time Hack” and set about finding a fresh experience every day for a year. He recorded and posted it all. One day he got in the ring with a professional boxer; another day, he took a class at trapeze school. He walked barefoot in the snow; he lay down on a road; he fed a donkey; he put a Whoopee cushion on a stranger’s chair. Stuff like that. On a spreadsheet, he recorded the activity and what “type” of experience it was — exhausting? Jarring? Uncomfortable? Intellectual? He also recorded two times: His post-activity guess at how long he had spent doing said activity, and then the actual time he had spent. And guess what? At the end of the year of doing a novel thing virtually every day, the time he had perceived doing those activities was indeed longer than the time he actually spent doing them, to the tune of an extra 14 hours, 43 minutes and 29 seconds.
“Put another way,” he wrote at the wrap of his time-hacked year, “I squeezed 4.6 percent more time out of these activities.” And put yet another way?
“I lived .17 percent longer than other humans on Earth in 2011.”
Fast-forward to today, two years and change into COVID times, and Danzico laughs on the phone with me. There was a little media blitz around his project at the time, he says. “And I remember being a young whippersnapper, all pompous, all ‘I have lived the longest year ever recorded in human history,’” he says. Truth is, he adds, he also felt a bit like he’d missed out on his 29th year, seeing as he was so busy building his days around things like getting an enema (“jarring”) and eating a blowfish (“uncomfortable”).
Speaking of the longest year in human history, though: Can we talk about the news cycles? In news-time, we’ve aged decades since 2020. Believe me, I have the eye bags and crow’s-feet to prove it. If you’re talking about processing new data and how that slows our perception of the passage of time, it’s amazing any of us feel like time has moved at all. There’s been the virus, its casualties, the quarantines, the endless vaccine rollouts, the conflicting instructions. There’s also been the racial justice movement, a mad king in the White House, and the data tornado that accompanied him. Also: an attempted coup, a presidential election, a war in Europe, refugee crises, Supreme Court dysfunction, one devastating gun rampage after another, Roe, and more than enough Elon Musk for all our lifetimes. And hey, points out Bloomberg’s Tyler Cowen, doomscrolling — the natural outgrowth of all this — also distorts our sense of how much time has passed. So does PTSD, by the way.
It’s true, affirms neuroscientist Luke Jones: The sheer number of things that have happened almost definitely has contributed to the sense that the pandemic has dragged on for longer than two years. Jones is in high demand these days as head of the Time Perception Lab at the University of Manchester, in England. Most of what he deals with is people’s perception of duration. Over a Zoom call, he tells me, firstly, that we should understand there are different ways to think about how we estimate the passing of time. There’s prospective timing, which involves knowing in advance that some event will happen and knowing that you’ll need to estimate how long that event lasts. “This has been studied extensively in a lab,” Jones says — and doesn’t relate very well to real life, in part because it usually involves short durations. He’ll have subjects listen to two tones that might differ in length by just a tenth of a second, for example. “And you can easily tell which is longer,” he says, because humans are exceedingly good at this type of time perception. When we’re talking COVID, though, it’s more about retrospective timing — essentially, looking backward and inferring how much time has passed by weighing the amount of stuff that happened in that period. Like Danzico; like Eagleman’s free-fallers.
And so yes, retrospectively, the feeling that the pandemic has crawled very likely does have to do with how much has happened news-wise. But simultaneously, there’s another way our brains measure time, Jones tells me: Temporal orientation refers to the mental milestones of when things happen — what day it is, what month, what season. “We instinctively have a feeling about that,” he says, “and that tends to be based on regular things that happen. You always go see Auntie on Wednesdays; you go to the museum on Tuesday nights.”
Many of our temporal orientations got messed up because our routines got messed up. This was especially true during lockdown. So if you’re thinking retrospectively about how much has happened, “On one hand, it’s been a lot,” Jones says, and the years have felt long. “But at the same time, there’s been a lack of activity. You didn’t meet up for your birthday. Christmas was different. Halloween was different. Summer vacations and graduations didn’t happen.” In the temporal-orientation sense, you can see why 2019 feels fairly recent.
Sure, this seems paradoxical, Jones acknowledges. But no: “You can hold both thoughts at the same time, depending on what you’re thinking about.” Which inner clock are you using?
And by the way, blame our altered temporal orientation when it comes to the brain fog that’s descended on so many of us. “It’s bizarre,” Jones admits. “And it’s hard to find anything else like it.” There is one thing he can think of, though: the annual gap between Christmas and New Year’s. You know — that window when everything and everyone feels like a timeless blob? “This is the same thing,” Jones says, “though stretched over a two-year-period.”
But wait, wait! There’s more! Another factor to consider is how we judge the passage of time as we’re experiencing it — those “time flies” vs. “time crawls” perceptions. You can work out how quickly (or not) time will seem to pass to people based on two factors, Jones says: One is how relevant time is at that moment, and the other is how certain or uncertain it is. So say you’re lazing in Clark Park, happily reading a book with nowhere to be. Time has little relevance, and it will seem to go quickly — or, more accurately, you’ll have a non-experience of time, Jones says. It won’t exist for you until that moment when you check your phone and — whoa! It’s been two hours! If you’re an introvert who loved the extra downtime during lockdown (weirdo), those early days of COVID likely raced by for you.
Now, Jones suggests, imagine that you’re done reading and you have to catch a train. You need the train to be on time because you’re on your way to the airport. Time is thus highly relevant. If the train system is reliable and you feel certain of when the train is going to arrive, your sense of the passage of time will be average, Jones says — normal. But if transit service is unreliable? If you’re uncertain when or if that train will come? (Imagine that, Philly!) Well, there you are, “pacing up and down, looking at a clock, with no idea when that train is going to arrive,” Jones says. The train will seem to take forever.
And if that’s not an apt metaphor for the past two years — pacing, hoping, waiting for the freaking train to just get here already — I don’t know what is.
It will be interesting, I think, to see how we remember these times way down the road. Assuming we get there, I mean.
When the fog has dissipated, when the train has come in, when the car wreckage has been cleared away, will more time spent on this Earth put these years and their memories back into their rightful places? I still think of my childhood summers as blissfully long, even though I know they were no longer than summers are today. And those go by too fast.
But summer is still here, and that’s reassuring. There are, as ever, 365 days in a year: the bad years, the good years, the years when the bad and the good bleed together so much that it hurts to think about it and hurts not to think about it. Sunrise and sunset; one season following another, the song goes. Or the other song, the one from Rent that I’ve been humming nonstop ever since I started writing this story: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes … ” All present, if not accounted for.
It’s neat what our brains do to that passing time in order to make sense of this world and the memories we store while we’re in it. I particularly like what Danzico offers at the end of his TED-Ed video by way of a lesson to take away from all this. “If you get up and engage with the world and have new experiences,” he says, “you will literally perceive your own life” — and he means at the end, on your deathbed — “to have lasted for a longer period of time.” And isn’t that what we all want? A long (-seeming) life filled with rich memories. Less Netflix, more Whoopee cushions. Or something like that.
Maybe another lesson to take from these COVID years is a reminder that time truly is what we make it. That’s been the case for Jones. “I’m more inclined to say yes to things now,” he says, this man who understands time better than most of us. “Before, it was ‘Can I be bothered to do X, or Y, or Z?’ Now, it’s yeah, I can be bothered.”
Published as “The Lost Moments of COVID” in the August 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.