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A Woman With Dyschronometria Shares Her Experience Of Losing Track Of Time

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I know a lot of us have been feeling lately as if time is somehow distorted, like getting dressed for a Zoom meeting only to realize it's Saturday - or the feeling that the days are passing either very slowly or way too fast. Well, Invisibilia's Hanna Rosin has a story for us about a woman who's been having problems tracking time for years.

JEANNIE CAMPBELL: If you don't know what day of the week it is, how do you find out?

HANNA ROSIN, BYLINE: I guess I would just Google it. But the truth is, I never considered this problem before life turned into the slog of lockdowns and death counts with no definite end. But Jeannie Campbell, she's been losing track of the time for years.

Can you tell me about the first time you noticed that maybe something was funny about time or something had gone off?

CAMPBELL: Yeah. I can remember my husband coming upstairs shouting at me to get out the shower - just shouted, come on out; you've been in their ages. I just hadn't noticed.

ROSIN: Jeannie remembers being in there enjoying the hot water and the nice smell of shampoo. But in her mind, it had just been a few minutes. So she got out to check.

CAMPBELL: So I look at the clock, and then I can't believe it. You know, I think it's some sort of mad joke.

ROSIN: Her problem, Jeannie later discovered, was called dyschronometria, lost time syndrome. Jeannie was 50 when she took that shower, and she had just had a stroke. Dyschronometria sometimes comes on after strokes. And usually, it goes away. But in Jeannie's case, it didn't, so she'll be walking the dog thinking she's been out 15 minutes and come home to discover it's been two hours. Or at work once, she left her desk just to check the bulletin board for a second. And an hour later, her colleagues found her still standing there and reading it.

But I mean, you have a watch.

(LAUGHTER)

CAMPBELL: Oh, if only it was that easy. You don't believe a watch that's telling you the wrong time. I mean, you know, it's impossible that it's that time. It's impossible. Every single time, it's impossible that you've got it wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: I can understand this better than I would have a month ago. Lately, the days just seem so slow, and yet nearly every day I say out loud, how is it already 3 o'clock? That's why I tracked down Jeannie because she has been at this for a decade and she's figured some things out, like that we should pay attention to this problem because losing a sense of time feels a lot like losing yourself.

CAMPBELL: Time controls us. Clocks and things, you know, they're like straitjackets. So the ultimate irony of it is that this straitjacket of regimented do this, do that, tick this box, tick this box, tick this box, tick this box - is lifted, and we fall apart. It's like there's chaos once life becomes chaotic - very frightening and disengaging.

RUTH OGDEN: The baby is going mad.

ROSIN: The baby belongs to Ruth Ogden, who studies time perception at Liverpool University, although she currently studies it at her house, where she is on lockdown with three children under 7, including baby Rosa (ph).

OGDEN: My main area of research is trying to understand why time sometimes feels fast and why time sometimes feels slow for people.

ROSIN: One popular theory about how we experience time is that people and animals have a kind of internal stopwatch tick-ticking away in our brains. But we're not all that conscious of it until we decide to check it. But that very process of checking, it introduces a whole bunch of new factors - emotions, mood, memories - that throw everything off.

OGDEN: When people are talking about distortions to time, what they're talking about is how they feel about time in comparison with something else - their memory representation of time or some external temporal marker like a clock.

ROSIN: So if you're in a car accident, you might say it feels like it happened in slow motion because you're comparing it to the external marker, say, your cellphone which tells you that it actually only took eight seconds. But sometimes it's the temporal markers that shift. You're no longer doing the daily routine that you would normally use to mark off time like taking the 8:32 bus or 2 p.m. prayers. That's what's happening to us right now, when so much of the world has halted, which Ruth Ogden sees as a rare opportunity to do a mass study on how people experience time when you confuse their days for a long period. So about a month ago she distributed questionnaires around the U.K. asking whether people were experiencing coronavirus time as moving faster or more slowly than normal.

OGDEN: Well, I've had a little sneaky peek at this data, and I was expecting it to be slowly.

ROSIN: But of the 400 responses, so far, half said they were experiencing time more slowly, and half faster. To find out why, Ogden also asked other questions. Are people depressed or isolated? Are they sick? Are they working overtime?

And when she gets all the data back, she'll look for patterns. In the meantime, though, she does have some advice for people who are feeling lost in time.

OGDEN: If you're suddenly finding you're eating your breakfast at, like, 11 a.m. and you're not eating lunch until 3 p.m., if that's going to be your new normal, that's fine. But you need to carry on doing it so you don't feel lost within that day. We need to create new structures for ourselves so that we place ourselves back in time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: During her decade of living with lost time, Jeannie Campbell has figured out her own way to do just that - a way she describes as odd but urgent - that came to her one day.

CAMPBELL: It was as basic as breathing. I wanted to have a set time in the day to go deep.

ROSIN: She started by just sitting on one side of the sofa quietly. Then she added a candle - and then a journal and then old church music and then more old church music. And she did this for a period of time every day.

CAMPBELL: It gave me the resources to not give a damn, really, about the external clock. By being deep, I could - I could anchor myself.

ROSIN: I asked Jeannie if there was some version of this we could adopt to help us with our lost time problem. And she told me a story. Her neighbor, she said, had called to report that he was filling his days by cleaning every part of his house, including the dustbins. That sounds familiar. But it struck Jeannie that this version of chores and lists and make-work was just giving into the straitjacket jacket aspect of time and ignoring what's really happening around us. If we want to understand the truth about this period of time we're living through, including the real dangers out there, it would be nonsense, as she put it to me, not to reserve some time each day in some way to go deep.

Hanna Rosin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.