Wed. May 25th, 2022

A friend recently mentioned that when someone asks him about “last year”, his mind automatically rewinds to 2019.

For him, 2020 is not just a blur – it has almost completely disappeared from his memory.

Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of us began to notice a strange phenomenon: There were moments during lockdown where the clock seemed to stop, but when we look back, it feels like time flew by.

CBC Ottawa posed the question to our Instagram followers: How has the last 20 months changed your perception of the passage of time?

“It feels like 20 years,” one wrote. “Was 3 months pregnant in March 2020. I am a different person.”

“I feel like I’m still in 11th grade, but I’m nearing the end of first semester uni,” replied another.

‘Time markers are missing’

We know that time objectively moves in a constant, linear way, much like – well, much like a clock ticking. Subjectively, however, we each measure the passage of time in our own way.

Cognitive researchers believe that our brains make that calculation by looking for guides in the form of memorable experiences. The fewer signposts there are, the harder it is for our minds to map out how much time has passed, creating a sense of separation that for some may be disruptive.

The pandemic, by forcing many of us into isolation and removing the activities we used to mark the time, has made some of us forget much of the last year and a half. Months of monotonous routine have taken their toll on our memories.

“The time markers are missing,” said Claudia Hammond, author of Time Warped: Unlocks the mysteries of time perception.

“There are so many more routines, and if you have routines … you do not make so many new memories. And we assess how long it has taken, how many new memories we have made.”

Claudia Hammond is a television presenter, psychology lecturer and author of several books, including Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. (Ian Brodie /

Not only has COVID-19 robbed us of the unique experiences we use to mark the past, it has also canceled or at least postponed many important events we looked forward to, such as family reunions, weddings and vacations.

“During the pandemic, we have not been able to plan that much,” Hammond noted. “We are forced to live in the now.”

A UK survey published in July 2020 showed that more than 80 percent of participants “experienced time-warping during lockdown compared to normal.”

The study also found that “age, stress, workload, and satisfaction with current levels of social interaction” affected how individuals perceived the passage of time. Participants who were older, stressed, overworked, or dissatisfied with their social lives felt that time went slowly to a requirement during lockdown, while younger, more socially satisfied participants tended to feel that time went faster.

According to Jim Davies, professor of the Department of Cognitive Science at Carleton University, the common factor for almost everyone has been monotony.

“We do not go out so much, we do not have people over so much, we do not travel that much. So that kind of markers – trips you take and that kind of thing – are replaced with a lot of repetitive, familiar tasks,” he said.

Two people pass a picture of the Peace Tower clock in downtown Ottawa in September 2021. (Trevor Pritchard / CBC)

Paradoxical time

That monotony can have a paradoxical effect when we tackle routine tasks, Davies explained. “At the moment it may feel like it’s taking forever, but in hindsight it seems like a blink of an eye.”

There is another paradox at stake. Although we are all in the midst of a historic global event, marked by other notable events, that in itself is not enough to nurture the kind of memories most of us need to mark time.

For an experience to be meaningful – for it to be memorable and thereby help us understand the course of days, weeks and months – it must be personal and emotional, Davies said.

“If you got some kind of recognition, or you were dumped by your lover or whatever, it’s a big event in your life. And so the more of those that happened, the more time seems to have passed, ” he said. “In normal times, most people’s lives are filled with much more significant things that their minds can somehow hold onto to assess how much time has passed.”

For the same reason, most people will remember vacations in vivid detail, but when we return home to our routines, the days seem to fly by.

The same phenomenon can also affect our spatial perception. For example, most people would rate a walk from one end of Disney World to the other as being much longer than it actually is because there is so much visual stimulation along the way.

Now that many pandemic restrictions are being lifted and our lives are gradually returning to a kind of normal, many of us have begun to recreate the prominent memories.

Jim Davies is an author and professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Carleton University. (Posted by Jim Davies)

Experts say we can speed up the process by forcing ourselves to break from our pandemic routines, even in small ways.

The hippocampus – the part of our brain that is thought to be responsible for turning experiences into memories – is stimulated the moment we walk out the door. So we should do that more often, Hammond said, and we should choose a different route every day.

“The moment you leave your home, your safe place, you begin to pay more attention to what is going on and [begin] makes more memories that you can navigate, and you lose all that if you barely leave your house, “she said.” If you always sit at the same computer screen in your home, it all looks a little similar. “

Davies suggests trying a new recipe, sleeping in another bed, or contacting an old friend.

“I think what we have been denied is the usual sources of variation in our lives, but there are many things we can do at home,” he said.

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