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How the coronavirus lockdown is distorting our sense of time — and our memories

If you want to remember this period in later years with clarity and accuracy, start keeping a written record of what you’re experiencing.

In lockdown, we’re cut off from events that would normally break up our daily and weekly routines.
Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

During the coronavirus lockdown, I’ve been struck by how the weeks seem to race by. Every Friday, it seems, I find myself wondering where the past seven days went. Wasn’t it just last Friday? What happened to those intervening days?

And yet, I feel like I’ve been in lockdown forever.  And, weirdly, each day also seems unusually long.

Of course, I’m not alone with these temporal sensations.

“One of the interesting things that people have observed that is happening is that time is at once both really long and seems really short,” said Anne Wilson, a psychology professor at Canada’s Wilfried Laurier University, in a recent interview with reporter Leslie Young.

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“So the duration might seem really long while you’re actually going through the days, but then you hit the end of the week or the end of the month and you go, ‘Oh, my gosh, how can a whole week have gone by?’” Wilson added.

Julia Shaw, a psychologist and memory researcher at University College London, makes a similar observation in an essay for the Guardian:

The fact that every day is objectively the same length doesn’t matter nearly as much as how long every day feels. Research has shown that we perceive time passing more slowly if it is “empty” — bringing to mind the proverb that a watched kettle never boils. When there is little perceptible change, and it feels like nothing is really happening, time feels like it is stretched. …

But the opposite is true when we assess time retrospectively. When we are looking back, an eventful minute feels like it was longer than an uneventful one. Similarly, we find that when remembering the past, we perceive a year as longer if it included more memorable events. The more unique or important events you can remember from a period of your life, the longer that period is likely to feel in retrospect.

No daily markers — or known endpoint

In lockdown, we’re cut off from events that would normally break up our daily and weekly routines — work-related meetings, for example, or children’s soccer practices and music lessons, or parties and other get-togethers with friends. The lack of those markers warps our sense of time.

“Often when we perceive time, what we’re actually perceiving is change,” explains Shaw. “If you have fewer changes in your life, you are going to struggle to perceive time as you normally would. This can help to explain why periods that are historically momentous seem longer. The lockdown could also have longer-term implications for how we remember time. The unprecedented situation we now find ourselves in will inevitably be recounted again and again once it’s over.”

Our uncertainly about when the lockdown will end and things will get back to “normal” is also contributing to our skewed sense of time.

“We are navigating a lot in the uncertainty about what’s going to happen and mostly when it’s going to happen, so there is no way to organize, to shape our mind in time,” Simon Grondin, a psychology professor at Canada’s Université Laval, told Young.

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“Even on vacation, we know that we will be on vacation for a week or for a month and there will be an end to it,” he said. “And we can organize ourselves, knowing that OK, we have to be back three days before.”

Right now, however, the pandemic’s endpoint is unknown.

Creating temporal landmarks

Shaw argues that the lack of temporal landmarks during the lockdown may increase the likelihood that we’ll have gaps in our memories about this period later in our lives — and that we’ll fill those gaps with false memories.

“Our memories are likely already being contaminated by the false information that circulates online, or family members with a propensity for confabulation,” she says. “By the time we get to next year, it might be very difficult for us to establish what we actually did, or saw, or felt during this period.”

We can, however, overcome that problem, at least partly. “By recognizing what influences your perception of time, you can regain some control over how you will remember this period of your life,” says Shaw. “If you want to parse the flow of your memory into meaningful pieces again, one of the most important things to avoid is routine. Look for new experiences and ideas, ideally ones that are emotional and require effort.”

As an example, Shaw describes how she and her partner have organized for themselves special “themed” evenings, which center around a country they’ve never visited, complete with a dinner and documentary or film related to the country.

“The ideal temporal landmarks involve short and intense spikes of emotion and interest,” she adds. “While learning a new language or reading an 800-page magnum opus is likely to be satisfying in the long term, activities that stretch over multiple weeks will not make good landmarks.”

And if you want to remember this period in later years with clarity and accuracy, start keeping a written record of what you’re experiencing.

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“Assume that no matter how emotional, or interesting, or historic your experiences during the coronavirus lockdown are, you will forget them,” Shaw says. “Recording these memories outside your brain is the only way to truly keep them safe.”

FMI:  Both articles can be read in full in line. You’ll find Shaw’s at the Guardian and Young’s at