Remember the Sunday Scaries? When time was predictable, and intuitive? You could feel a Monday coming like a thunderstorm. You could jolt awake seconds before your alarm went off. But without the structure of normal life, our relationship with time is complicated. March was five years long, while April went by in a half hour. What gives? The science behind why time goes by so fast or slow highlights an eerie reality: time is relative, and subjective — despite being constant.
According to David Moroney, a high school science teacher at The Brearley School in New York City, time is simply a measurement. "Like mass, or distance, time is a fundamental quantity that can be measured using units like minutes, seconds, or hours," Moroney says. But while mass and distance measure properties of physical matter, "time is essentially a measurement of the behavior of matter," meaning, it's a measurement that allows us to compare sequences of events as they happen. And while Moroney says that time is easily one of the most complicated subjects to summarize, for the sake of wrapping our heads around it, we can think of it as a constant "unidirectional flow" as it relates to our lives on earth and our relationship with time. No matter how we are experiencing quarantine psychologically, time is moving the same as it ever has.
Despite this steadiness, "we are temperately disoriented," to say the least, says clinical psychologist Dr. Jeffry Rubin, Ph.D. Being stuck at home, with calendars wiped clean, people are no longer anchored to time as they know it. "We're stuck in two different time zones at the same time," Dr. Rubin tells Bustle: everyone is still very much attached to their lives before quarantine while also being painfully present. "It's a paradoxical experience of time," Dr. Rubin says.
Typically, time is a responsibility, Dr. Rubin says. You have an awareness of it because it requires something of you. You have a dinner date after work, so it's important to finish your emails on time. Or, you might have a wedding on the calendar in a few months and that helps you track the transition between spring and summer. But without places to be or engagements on the calendar, you are theoretically less conscious of time, and so it appears to move more slowly and inconsistently. That's why March was 10 years long and April was 16 minutes and everyone knows it.
Craig Callender Ph.D, a professor of philosophy at UC San Diego, says that "a big distinction in the psychology of time perception is between retrospective judgements and prospective judgements." Retrospective judgements happen, according to Callender, when we think back over a measure of time and estimate how long it seems to us. Prospective judgment looks to the future where we’re estimating how long the time in front of us will actually feel like. "Think of the difference between how long you assume a movie will feel before you watch it, versus how log it felt after you watch it," Callender says. If you liked Parasite, you might say, “I thought it would drag on but it really flew by.” In reality, the movie of course had the same run time for both people who enjoyed it and zipped through it people who disliked it and were dragged through it.
"Science has shown that both types of judgement are influenced by scores of factors, like mood, emotion, attention, food. So it’s not surprising that the lockdown is affecting our sense of time," Callender says. When our activities are limited, moods are low, and attention is scattered, perception of time is greatly effected — it basically puts us at a standstill. "Depression, for example, affects people’s sense of times passage, slowing it down immensely," Callender says.
"Retrospective duration estimates depend a lot on information flow and memory. If not much is happening, then you're not laying down so much new memory," Callender explains. Think of memories of time as the ticks of a clock: "In the week between two of your Zoom meetings, your mental clock is counting fewer ticks than normal, making time seem like it’s flying by, retrospectively." But presently, in the moment, that time feels endless.
One thing you can do to counteract this effect, according to Callender, is to try to "introduce as much novelty as you can." In Callender's house, that means themed dinner parties on certain nights of the week, but you can make even subtler changes, like "brushing your teeth with the other hand" or "rearranging the furniture" to add ticks to the proverbial clock. If every Monday is pizza night, and every Sunday is backyard adventure day, you can create memories that will diversify your experience during this time. "The old adage that time flies when you’re having fun contains a lot of truth," Callender says. "Many of our changes are originating, I suspect, in the fact that lockdown is no fun."
David Moroney, high school science teacher at The Brearley School
Dr. Jeffrey Rubin, Ph.D, Psychotherapist, Author, Teacher