What Day Is It? This Is Your Brain on Quarantine

By | May 7, 2020

May 7, 2020 — If it feels like all your internal clocks are melting as your stay-at-home days drone on, you are not alone. Researchers say that people in various levels of COVID-19 quarantine around the world are reporting a distorted sense of time.

Some people say they feel as if their days are sped up and flying by, while others sense that time has slowed to a crawl. An event that happened just weeks ago feels like something that happened years ago.

WJW, a Fox affiliate in Cleveland, started a tongue-in-cheek segment on its morning show that does nothing more than tell people what day it is. It went viral.

Researchers are hoping to use this collective time warp to learn more about how the brain perceives time and what, exactly, throws those perceptions out of whack.

Philip Gable, PhD, director of experimental programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, recognized the pandemic was messing with our sense of time early on. He quickly applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to take stock of what is going on. So far, he’s surveyed about 1,100 people across the U.S. He’s still analyzing his data, but early results show that about half — 48% — have reported that time was moving slowly or dragging during the past month, while 1 in 4, or 25%, said they felt like time was flying faster than usual.

Why that might be happening is still an open question, but cognitive scientists already know some of the rough outlines of what’s going on.

“We’re losing a lot of temporal cues,” says Sophie Herbst, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Temporal cues or temporal anchors are regularly occurring events, like weekends, which would normally break up the workweek. These anchors help us orient in time.

In 1974, researchers in Israel conducted what has become a classic experiment in the field of time perception.

Israel has a 6-day workweek, with one day of rest: Saturday. For 2 weeks, on each workday, scientists approached people on the street and asked them, “What day is today?”

The farther people in the study got from Saturday, their Sabbath, the longer it took them to come up with the correct answer. By Wednesday, it took study volunteers about 1 second longer to remember the day of the week than it had on Sunday. They got faster again as the week drew to a close.

“The general idea is that people take certain events during the week that are cyclical, and they anchor themselves to it, and the farther you get out from that anchor, the harder it is to tell when it is,” says Martin Weiner, PhD, an assistant professor of cognitive and behavioral neuroscience at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. When you stay at home all the time, he notes, “weekends don’t exist anymore.”

Weiner is part of an international group of scientists who have launched the Time and Social Distancing Study, which is running in eight languages. To participate, people log in from home and answer a battery of questions at three separate points in time — during quarantine, about 10 days after quarantine, and 3 months after stay-at-home orders have ended.

Weiner said one key question of the study is whether staying at home all the time has stripped us all of our temporal anchors and sent us adrift — giving us all the feeling that we don’t know when “now” is.

He says you can help yourself by keeping Saturday and Sunday as weekends. Do different things on those days. Make pancakes for breakfast. Get more rest. Drive somewhere for an outdoor adventure, for example.

The loss of temporal anchors may help explain why we lose our place in time, but what about the feeling of time expanding? April feels like it was years ago.

Chalk that one up to the loss of exceptional events in our lives, says Marc Wittmann, PhD, a research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany.

“Every day is just as the other day,” he says. “I think we’re just all lost in time now.”

Wittmann studies how emotion impacts our perception of time. He says the more emotional memories you make, the longer that time will seem when you reflect on it.

Imagine taking a weekend trip somewhere with a friend. You’re having a great time, and your days are filled with new experiences. When you reflect on that weekend later, it’s likely to seem like it was much longer than it actually was because you were making more memories than usual and they were weighted with emotion.

“After 2 to 3 days, it feels like such a long time has passed. Time stretches. The same 2 to 3 days staying at home, it feels like time has passed so quickly. Why? Because nothing has happened that feels memorable,” he says.

By the same token, says Gable, strong emotions like fear and disgust make time slow down.

“If you’re really disgusted or really afraid of something, time will tend to drag,” he says.

The reason that happens is that there’s actual physical time, as measured by a clock. And internally, we have our own estimation of that time. That estimation can be sped up or slowed down by our emotions and attention and other things, like brain injuries.

In threatening situations, our internal timekeeper speeds up relative to the actual time. That helps us quickly flee or get ready to fight. But as a result, if you notice a clock in the middle of a threatening situation, time will seem like it’s moving very slowly.

“The more people who are experiencing worry and stress and anxiety, uncertainty about the future, the more that they are experiencing time go by slower,” Gable says.

He says pandemic anxiety is particularly challenging to deal with because the solution for stopping the coronavirus is to sit at home more, by yourself. So we’ve lost a lot of social support and things that might relieve some of the anxiety, like a favorite hobby you’ve had to forgo for the moment because the place where you go to do it — say, the lap pool at the gym — isn’t open.

One thing that can help is to create a different kind of emotion, called approach motivation. That’s the feeling we get when we’re setting out to achieve a goal. Gable says giving yourself new goals to meet, and breaking those goals down into daily, achievable tasks, can help you feel better and also help time pass more normally.

Finally, as much as possible, try to embrace social isolation as an opportunity, and not a chore, Wittmann says.

“We have to think about ourselves like the astronauts on the International Space Station. They’re in social confinement,” he says. “We might have more time to think about ourselves and our lives and what we want to do.”

Sources

Sophie Herbst, PhD, cognitive neuroscientist, Humboldt University, Berlin.

Martin Weiner, PhD, assistant professor, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.

Philip Gable, PhD, director of experimental programs, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Marc Wittmann, PhD, research fellow, Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health, Freiburg, Germany.

Memory & Cognition: “What day is today? An inquiry into the process of time orientation.”

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