Why time feels so weird in 2020

A test of time

Why time feels so weird in 2020

Some days seem to pass very slowly while some weeks, and even months, fly by. A set of simple perception tests illustrate some factors that can distort our sense of time.

The global coronavirus pandemic has heightened our awareness that time is subjective. For some people who enjoy working from home, the days have whizzed by. For others desperate to travel or visit a loved one, time has slowed to a crawl.

Clocks were invented to help us track the passage of time - and yet in some moments when staring at a clock, we’re made aware of just how long a second can feel.

The illusion of time

Try this simple exercise to experience the illusion of time.

Both periods of time were equal in length, though the first period - when the yellow square is visible - is commonly said to feel longer than the second period, which is the empty, or unfilled, gap between two yellow squares.

According to neuroscientists, there is not a single organ or system in the body responsible for timekeeping. In fact, psychologists have identified many factors that affect our sense of time, some of which explain our heightened awareness of it this year.

Where did the time go?

In this exercise, you were asked to make a time estimation after an event, or what psychologists call a retrospective judgement.

Valtteri Arstila, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Turku in Finland, explains that you can make this judgment because you have in working memory the first shape to compare. While this method works comparing very short durations, a different process is used for longer time periods.

Think back to when you were asked to stay home to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Did that period go by quickly or slowly?

Most New Yorkers, for example, were asked to stay home beginning some time in March, and many seemed to note that April flew by despite the repetitive days.

Craig Callender, a professor of philosophy at the University of California San Diego, explains that we’re making this judgment based on an event recalled from our longer term memory.

“If you think of every salient event as ticks of the clock, there weren’t that many ticks in April so it feels like time went by really fast,” he said.

The same day, over and over

You just watched a series of images that were shown for the same amount of time though the novel image, in this case the nested squares, is often thought to have lasted longer.

This is called the oddball effect. Arstila points to two phenomena that can help us understand how we deal with periods of repetition.

First, we already have a record of the repeated object in memory and as such we pay less attention and it feels as though it passes more quickly. Second, when the new object appears, our attention focuses on creating a new memory, causing time to feel as though it has slowed down.

Arstila says the suppression of repetitive days is one reason that we may remember periods stuck at home as passing quickly. This same effect, he says, explains why retired people, who often have routine days, report that time flies by.

How attention and emotion distorts time

A number of studies have looked at how attention and emotion affect our sense of time. There are challenges to recreating illustrative examples, but try the following test.

You just performed an interval time estimation. Three stimuli were shown for the same duration, though the expanding circle is often thought to last longer.

“Things that grab our attention or require more attention feel much longer,” said Arstila.

Emotions can also influence our perception of time.

“Passage of time estimates correlate best with moods people have. If you have a good time, time flies, if you are sad, lonely, then time tracks,” said Arstila.

A busy day usually goes by quickly, but for some the opposite is true in 2020. Frontline healthcare workers, for example, know they are at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus, and the resulting anxiety heightens their attentiveness and slows their perception of how quickly a day passes.

For others, however, time can fly during joyful moments, such as a video catch-up or dinner with friends.

When was that?

You may have found yourself recently pondering when you last met up with a friend or went to the gym. Our recall of events both recent and long ago distort in a curious pattern.

Test yourself by thinking of a recent appointment and estimating how long ago it happened. Then check your calendar to see when it actually occurred. Or, without help, try dating the following events.

We tend to rely on memory rather than knowledge to date events happening within our lifetime. But as our memory distorts our perception of time, it also affects our sense of when an event took place.

Psychologists have found that it’s common when recalling a long-ago event to think that it happened more recently than it did. But if the event happened within the past three years, we often think that it happened longer ago.

This effect is called telescoping. Think of it as looking backward or forwards through a telescope where images are distorted depending on the orientation.

Given the shortage in toilet paper this year, can you remember the last time you bought some? Keeping in mind that memories fade over time, your recall may experience telescoping.

2020 will not be forgotten as the year of the pandemic anytime soon, but there is a high probability that we will misplace exactly when some events occurred.

As you find yourself looking back on this year, be aware of the illusion of time.

Editing by Tiffany Wu and Matthew Weber

Subjective duration in the laboratory and the world outside. In Subjective time: The philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of temporality [pdf]

Internal Clock Processes and the Filled-Duration Illusion [pdf]

Distortion in retrospective measures of word of mouth [pdf]

Telescoping and Temporal Memory [pdf]

The Psychology of Time Perception by John Wearden (2016)

Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond (2012)