COVID-19 lockdowns: how the pandemic has contributed to the feeling of time distortion

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Does it feel like 2020 went on forever?

Did lockdown drag, and can you even remember how you spent your time when you weren’t living under coronavirus restrictions? You are not alone.

For many, 2020 has been the year in which the constancy of time was lost to the upheaval of coronavirus.

Objectively, time passes at a constant, linear rate. Subjectively, however, time waxes and wanes with our activities and emotions. Sometimes, it flies by, other times it drags so slowly that it almost stands still.

This is backed up by research I conducted in April, which explored how the early months of the coronavirus pandemic had affected people’s experiences of the passage of time. Of particular interest was how quickly time felt like it was passing during lockdown in comparison to “normal” (that long-ago time before lockdown).

I surveyed 604 people about how quickly time felt it was passing that day and that week in comparison to before the lockdown. Participants also answered questions about their mood, family life and how busy they were to give context on the factors, which made time more likely to speed up or slow down for different people.

Tempus fugit?

My results showed that there was widespread distortion time during lockdown, with more than 80% of people reporting that time felt like it was passing differently. But lockdown did not distort time in the same way for everyone. Instead, time sped up during lockdown for 40% of people and slowed down for the remaining 40%.

Why was this?

My analysis suggests that the perceived speed of time during the day was affected by a person’s age, how satisfied they were with their level of social interaction, how stressed they were and how busy they were. In general, the days passed more quickly for younger people who were socially satisfied, busy and experiencing low levels of stress.

Conversely, the day passed more slowly for older people, particularly those over the age of 60, who were socially dissatisfied, stressed and lacking tasks to occupy them.

Similar patterns were observed for the subjective speed of the week. A fast week was associated with being younger and more socially satisfied, whereas a slow week was associated with being older and less socially satisfied.

A second unpublished study I conducted during the November lockdown revealed that, of the 851 people surveyed, more than 75% experienced distortion to time and 55% reported that the start of the first lockdown felt longer than eight months ago. A slower second lockdown was associated with shielding, dissatisfaction with social interaction and greater depression and boredom.

The UK is not alone in its loss of time during lockdown. Studies conducted in FranceItaly and Argentina also show widespread distortion to the passage of time during periods of strict COVID-19 restrictions.

Unlike in the UK, in France and Italy lockdown passed more slowly than normal for most people rather than being split 40/40 as in my April study. As in the UK, however, boredom was an important predictor of time slowing down in Italy and in France. In France, time also passed more slowly with increasing sadness.

Emotions and time

Why does being older, bored, stressed and socially dissatisfied make time pass more slowly? This question is difficult to answer.

Unlike other senses, we don’t have an obvious organ for time. Instead, time is experienced as part of other sensory inputs, such as sight and hearing, and this has made it difficult to identify precisely how the brain processes it.

One possibility is that when we are bored and socially dissatisfied we have lots of spare cognitive capacity and that we then use some of that capacity to increase our monitoring of time.

This increased monitoring then results in time passing more slowly than normal, simply because we are more aware of time than normal. Another possibility is that the emotional consequence of lockdown altered the way the brain processes time.

In particular, the negative emotions associated with isolation, boredom, sadness and stress may have contributed to a slowing of time. However, inconsistent effects of depression and anxiety across studies suggests that the effect of emotion on time is complex.

So what of 2021?

Will time regain its regular rhythm? It is difficult to say. With the first vaccines currently being deployed, we maybe more hopeful than ever that normality is just around the corner. The reality may be that normality is many months away.

Regardless, while we can’t change the actual time it takes for the vaccination programme to be completed, there are some things which we can do to speed up the wait. By keeping busy, minimising stress, engaging in as much face-to-face or online social interaction as we can and by reducing our stress levels, we can help the journey back to normality pass more quickly than normal.


The 2020 novel Coronavirus-19 (Covid-19) pandemic, and the subsequent attempts to contain the virus, have resulted in significant changes to daily life in the United Kingdom. On the 23rd of March 2020, to reduce the transmission of Covid-19, the UK Government imposed measures which placed significant restrictions on the circumstances in which members of the public could leave their homes.

Members of the public were instructed that they should only leave the house for very limited purposes, including (1) shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible, (2) one form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle—alone or with members of their household, (3) any medical need, including to donate blood, avoid or escape risk of injury or harm, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person, and (4) travelling for work purposes, but only where they cannot work from home.

Failure to comply with these rules could result in a fine or arrest. When people did leave the house, they must stay at least two meters away from people who do not live in their household. These social and physical distancing measures have been termed “the lockdown” by the British public and media.

The societal and behavioural changes as a result of these measures have been significant. Children, except those of key workers, are unable to attend school. Homeworking has increased, as has unemployment and the temporary furloughing of employees.

People residing in different households are no longer permitted to interact with one another, severely limiting the opportunity for face-to-face socialization for many people. Such substantial changes to daily live will have significant consequences for the way in which people experience the world around them. This study aimed to establish how the passage of time was experienced during the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK.

Time experience

Objectively time passes at a constant linear rate. Subjectively, however, our experience of time is influenced by the activities that we perform and the emotions that we experience [1]. To date, the overwhelming majority of studies examining human time perception have taken place in laboratories and have focused on the processing of short (< 1 minute) durations.

These studies have provided clear evidence that emotion [2, 3], cognitive capacity [4, 5], psychopathology [6, 7], drug administration [8] and cognitive load [9] can systematically distort the perceived duration of short events. Relatively few studies however have explored people’s experience of time, outside of the laboratory, in the real world [10, 11].

Passage of time judgments (POTJ), describe the subjective speed at which time feels as though it is passing, for example, more quickly than normal, as normal, or more slowly than normal [1, 10–13]. POTJs can be made in the moment, for example, how quickly does time feel as though it is passing in this moment, sometimes referred to as a present judgment of passage of time [14, 15], or they can be made retrospectively over longer epochs, for example, how quickly did the previous hour, day, week or month feel like it was passing in comparison with normal [1].

Although POTJs are temporal judgments, they appear to be based on different mechanisms to those involved in the perception of short (sub-second) durations [10, 15, 16] and therefore warrant research in their own right. The social and physical distancing measures resulting from the Covid-19 lockdown present an opportunity to examine how the passage of time is affected by the significant changes to daily life described above.

The idea that significant deviation from “normal” may affect the passage of time is not new. Previous research has examined the effects of being confined to a nuclear fallout bunker [17, 18] or self-isolating alone in a cave for a period of weeks or months [19].

In these situations, life was significantly different to normal and significant distortions to the passage of time were observed. However, these studies were essentially experimental in nature, participants did not have any access to external temporal markers, for example, watches, clocks or even natural light.

Consequently, the findings perhaps reflect the effect of a loss of external time references rather than solely the effects of disruption to normal life. There is however, very limited evidence to suggest that the passage of time can distort during periods of social atypicality.

Flaherty Freidin, and Sautu (2005) [20] interviewed people about the passage of time during the 5 months after the 2001 resignation of President Fernando de la Rúa. Distortions to the passage of time were common. A fast passage of time was associated with the rapidly changing domestic situation following the resignation whereas slow time was associated with economic and personal insecurity and suffering. Further research which quantifies the predictive factors which contribute to distortions to the passage of time during periods of profound social change is however warranted.

Studies of the passage of time during “normal” daily life offer insights into how and why the social and physical distancing measures imposed during Covid-19 may affect how an individual experiences the passage of time. The adage “time flies when you’re having fun” suggests that our emotional state influences the subjective speed with which time passes.

This suggestion is supported by studies showing that self-reported mood and arousal are predictive of the speed of the passage of time during real-world activity and in laboratory studies. In a series of studies, Droit-Volet and colleagues have consistently demonstrated that, for present POTJs, positive affect and higher arousal are associated with the sensation of time passing more quickly in the moment [14, 15, 21, 22].

Wearden et al., (2014) [1] also reported an association between positive affect and time passing more quickly than normal when studying people’s recollections of the passage of time during drug use, suggesting that the association is not dependant on the judgment being made in the present moment. Indeed, it has been suggested that the sensation of time flying may act as a cue for enjoyment of an experience [23].

Whilst positive affect and high arousal are associated with time passing more quickly than normal, negative affect and low arousal are associated with time passing more slowly than normal. People with depression report that time passes more slowly than normal during episodes of depression [24–26]. Time also passes more slowly than normal for hospitalized oncology patients, with lower levels of wellbeing being associated with greater slowing of time [27].

In non-clinical populations, self-reported negative affect (sadness) and low levels of arousal are predictive of a slowing of the passage of time in the present moment [14, 15, 21] and when retrospectively judging the passage of time during previous life events [1].

Boredom has also been consistently associated with a slowing of the passage of time in a range of laboratory and real-world studies [1, 28–30]. Conversely however, time is also reported to slow down in situations of mortal peril, for example, car accidents, suggesting that the relationship between arousal and the passage of time may be complex [31].

The UK lockdown restrictions are likely to have significant effects on the mental health and affective experiences of the nation [32]. Indeed, a study of mental health in China during its lockdown measures suggests that anxiety, depression and panic all increased during this time [33]. Emotional changes as a consequence of UK’s lockdown may therefore alter the subjective passage of time during this period in comparison to normal.

The subjective speed at which time passes is also influenced by the physical and cognitive load of the tasks we perform. In general, research shows that performing familiar tasks, or tasks which have a low cognitive load, results in the sensation of time passing more slowly than normal. Increases in task complexity, the intellectual requirements of the task and the level of task engrossment, are all associated with time passing more quickly [1, 10, 11, 16, 34].

However, because time can pass also more slowly when task requirements exceed resources, Flaherty (1993) [35, 36] proposed a U-shaped relationship between the complexity of an event and the speed at which time appears to pass, with extremely high and low levels of complexity leading to a slowing of the passage of time.

These effects may arise from differing levels of attention to time during different levels of task load. When load is very low there is spare cognitive capacity to focus attention on the passing of time and a greater than average level of attention to time may result in the sensation of it passing more slowly, as is observed during boredom [11].

Conversely, when load is high, attentional resources are dedicated to the task and little attention is paid to time, this may contribute to the sensation of time passing more quickly than normal. Changes in daily task load, because of changing work patterns, unemployment and increased childcare requirements, seem a likely consequence of the UK lockdown and it therefore possible that these changes will distort the passage time during this period.

Finally, there is inconsistent evidence that age influences our experience of the passage of time. Increasing age is often associated with a feeling of an acceleration in the subjective speed of time [37–41]. For example, studies in which people are asked to reflect on the speed of the passage of time now in comparison with earlier periods of their life suggest that the passage of time accelerates with age [39, 41].

However, evidence from direct comparisons of the subjective speed of time in different age groups is more equivocal. When comparing the relative speed of time between groups of different ages, older groups are only consistently found to experience “the last 10 years” as passing more quickly than younger groups, with experiences for other epochs (e.g. the day or week) appearing to be similar [37, 38, 40].

Studies conducted during real world activity have however failed to demonstrate a consistent effect of age on the passage of time. Droit-Volet and Wearden (2015; 2016) [14, 15] observed no differences between present judgments of passage of time (how quickly does time feel like it is passing in the present moment) for young people and older individuals. In a further study, Droit-Volet (2019) [21] questioned whether age effects only emerge in the very elderly.

After comparing the passage of time in the over 75s with a younger group of elderly people (aged 64–75 years), she observed that the present passage of time was perceived as slower in people over the age over 75 years in comparison to the younger group of elderly people.

Droit-Volet (2019) [21] however failed to observe any consistent differences in the participants’ POTJ judgments for the subjective speed of time over the previous day, week, month or year. It is possible that differences in POTJ judgments may have been observed if a much younger comparison group had been included.

If the passage of time is affected by age, it is possible that time experience will differ for younger and older people during the lockdown. Indeed, because the lockdown measures may differentially impact on different age groups, the potential for age effects on POTJ to emerge may be greater in this period than under normal circumstances.

For example, because old adults are at greater risk of mortality from Covid-19 [42] and are likely to live alone [43], greater levels of social isolation and stress may make temporal distortion more likely, or more extreme, for them than younger individuals.

The studies discussed above demonstrate that the subjective speed at which time passes varies during normal day-to-day life. What remains unclear however, is how the passage of time distorts when there is a significant change in the routine of day-to-day life through social and physical distancing.

The current study sought to establish how the passage of time was experienced during the 2020 Covid-19 lock-down period. Specifically, the study aimed to establish whether the subjective speed at which time passed during the lockdown differed from normal. It also aimed to establish factors which influenced the subjective speed of the passage of time.

An online questionnaire was developed to capture data on reported passage of time during lockdown. The questionnaire contained two passage of time judgements questions, one exploring passage of time during that day (POTJ-day) and another exploring passage of time over the last week (POTJ-week).

Both questions required participants to indicate how quickly time felt like it was passing in comparison to normal using a 7 point likert scale ranging from 1, extremely slowly to 7 extremely fast. Other measures in the questionnaire were informed by the literature reviewed above.

Previous research shows a clear effect of affective experience on POTJs. Affect was therefore measured using the DASS-21 [44] which provides measures of depression, anxiety and stress. Load, which has also been demonstrated to influenced POTJ, was assessed using a modified version of the NASA-TXL [45] in which participants were asked to respond on the basis of their average day during lockdown.

In addition, because the UK lockdown restrictions heavily focus on social and physical distancing, participants were asked to indicate 1) their level of satisfaction with their social interactions since lock-down, 2) their level of physical activity since lockdown and 3) the extent to which they agreed that their daily lives had changed since lockdown.

Participants also provided demographic details including age, gender, employment status, number of cohabitants and perceived risk from Covid-19.

A number of hypotheses were developed, based on the research discussed above. Firstly, it was expected that, due to the significant lifestyle changes imposed by the lockdown, the passage of time would be distorted relative to normal. Secondly, it was expected that the relative distortion to the passage of time would be associated with measures of affect including depression, stress, anxiety and satisfaction with current levels of socialisation.

Specifically, it was expected that greater levels of depression, stress and anxiety, and lower levels of satisfaction with social interaction, would be associated with a slower passage of time, whereas greater levels of satisfaction with socialisation and lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress would be associated with a faster passage of time.

Thirdly, it was expected the task load would also be associated with the passage of time, with a greater average daily task load being associated with a faster passage of time. Finally, because Covid-19 poses a greater risk to the elderly and because the current social and physical distancing measures are likely to have a significant impact on the elderly and those living alone, it was expected that a slower passage of time would be associated with increasing age and living alone.

Discussion
This study examined the passage of time during the UKs lockdown period in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Specifically, the study aimed to establish factors which contributed to the relative speeding up and slowing down of the passage of time during this period.

The results show that, for many people, the passage of time felt distorted during the lock-down period in comparison with normal. For both the day and the week POTJs, participants were more likely to respond that the speed of the passage of time was distorted in comparison with normal, than to respond that time was passing at a normal rate.

Interestingly, time did not distort in a single direction for all participants (i.e. faster or slower), instead, experiences of time passing more quickly or more slowly than normal were split almost evenly across those who experienced a distortion of the passage of time. Social and physical distancing measures therefore appear to have different effects on the passage of time in different people.

Despite this, the experience of distortion to the passage of time appears to be consistent within individuals, as demonstrated by the strong positive correlation between POTJ-day and POTJ-week responses. People who experienced fast days were therefore also likely to experience fast weeks, whereas people who experienced slow days were more likely to also experience slow weeks.

The speed of the passage of time during the lockdown was related to a number of factors. How quickly time was felt to pass during a day was related to levels of depression and stress, satisfaction with current levels of social interaction and participant age. However, regression analysis revealed that age, satisfaction with levels of social interaction, stress and task load were the only factors which were predictive of the speed of the passage of time.

The likelihood of the day passing more slowly increased with increasing stress, reduced task load, increasing age and decreasing satisfaction with current levels of socialisation. The speed of the passage of time for the week correlated with depression, stress, age and satisfaction with socialisation.

Subsequent regression analysis however revealed that only age and satisfaction with socialisation levels were predictive of the speed at which time passed during the week. Again, increasing age and greater dissatisfaction with levels of social interaction increased the likelihood of time passing more slowly across the week.

Occupation, cohabitation status, perceived risk to Covid-19, anxiety, level of physical activity and extent to which daily life has changed due to the lock-down were unrelated to both passage of time judgments. Therefore, although the experience of the passage of time seemed broadly consistent across the two epochs (day and week), different factors predicted the speed of the passage of time for these periods.

These findings enable us to draw a number of conclusions about the passage time during the UK Covid-19 lockdown. Firstly, during times of social and physical distancing, satisfaction with current levels of social interaction is a significant predictor of the speed of the passage of time.

Greater dissatisfaction with levels of social interaction are associated with a slowing of the passage of time whereas greater satisfaction with the level of social interaction are associated with an increase in the speed of the passage of time. Previous research has suggested that affective factors have a consistent effect on the passage of time, with positive affect being associated with a faster passage of time and negative affect being associated with a slowing of the passage of time [1, 14, 15, 19].

The findings of this study support these suggestions; greater stress was associated with a slower passage of time as was greater dissatisfaction with social interaction, which is a form of negative affect, which in this and other studies [47] is highly correlated with levels of depression and anxiety.

Therefore, in times of societal upheaval, emotion influences the passage of time in broadly comparable ways to during normal times. The absence of a predictive effect of depression or anxiety on the passage of time in the current study does, however, suggest that more situation-specific affective measures may be better predictors of temporal experience than more general ones.

Indeed, a key question for future research is whether social satisfaction is predictive of the passage of time during normal daily life. If it is not, this perhaps suggests that how we experience time is not shaped by global affective factors but, instead, that the passage of time is determined by event specific factors centring on the most salient changes during different periods.

Secondly, there are some differences in the factors which affect the subjective speed of the passage of time over shorter (day) and longer (week) epochs. Although age and satisfaction with levels of social interaction predicted both day and week POTJs, stress and task load only predicted day POTJs.

For POTJ-day, increasing stress was associated with a slowing of the passage of time whereas increasing task load was associated with a faster passage. The observed association between increased task load and a faster passage of time supports observations from laboratory studies exploring the effect of information processing load on passage of time judgements [1, 10, 11, 15].

Task-load therefore has comparable effects in the real-world and laboratory studies. Increased task load is thought to hasten the passage of time because it reduces boredom and the amount of attention paid to time [10, 11]. Increasing the task demands of the day therefore appears to be one way in which people can hasten the passage of time during the lockdown.

However, because increased stress is associated with a slower passage of time, and increased task load can be associated with increased stress, it is possible that increasing task demands to a point that stress is induced may actually result in a slowing of the passage of time. Future research should examine the potential bidirectional effects of task-load and stress on time experience.

It is unclear why stress and task-load only affected the day and not week POTJ. One possibility is that participants struggled to accurately remember their average task load, as a consequence, responded based primarily on their current day experience. Alternatively, large variations in levels of stress and task-load across the week could have made it difficult for participants to produce a meaningful average. Thus, inaccuracies in the reporting of the task load may have contributed to the absence of an effect of this variable for POTJ-week.

Finally, the findings of this study suggest that during times of social and physical distancing, age is a significant predictor of the passage of time, with increasing age being associated with an increasingly slow passage of time. Specifically, whilst people aged 18 to 60 appear to experience time in a comparable way, people over the age of 60 appear to experience a relative slowing of the passage of time during lockdown when compared to those under the age of 60.

This contrasts with recent studies conducted under “normal” circumstances which typically show that the passage of time does not differ between younger and older adults [14, 15]. However, it is important to note there are a number of key methodological differences between this study and Droit-Volet and colleagues, with Droit-Volet’s work primarily measuring the passage of time in the present moment, rather than the retrospective passage of time across days and weeks as in this study.

The differing findings may therefore reflect differing effects of age on different epochs of passage of time judgements. However, it is also possible that the differing findings reflect the effects of social and physical distancing on the passage of time. There is some evidence that older adults can experience a slowing of the passage of time, but only when they are living in residential care homes [21].

This slowing of the passage of time for residential care home residents is thought to be due to being in the residential home itself and the definitive change that brings to life, rather than age related change in cognition or affect.

Together, the current study and Droit-Volet (2019) [21] perhaps suggest that age effects on the passage of time become most apparent when there is a significant change in normal life. Critically, together, they also suggest that rather than speeding up, time may actually pass more slowly in elderly group.

reference link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7337311/


Source: The Conversation

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