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How did COVID warp our sense of time? It's a matter of perception

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The pandemic did something strange to our sense of time.

For Ruth Ogden, lockdown spent confined to her 3-bedroom duplex in Manchester, England, with a newborn and two boys home from school, "was like climbing a mountain that never ended." Time stood still, she says, filled with children moaning of boredom, and her yearning for bedtime.

"It was absolute hell," Ogden says. "I could not believe there were 24 hours in the day; it dragged like a massive concrete block behind me."

And yet, with the pandemic receding a bit, Ogden says the distortion of that time feels different. "It seems like it didn't really happen," she says. "Like: I can't really remember anything about it, so in some ways it seems quite short."

The COVID era distorted time perception around the world

Ogden is a psychologist at Liverpool John Moores University, and her experience of distorted time led her to conduct a series of surveys around the world throughout the pandemic.

The results underscore just how variable our sense of time can be. It can be altered by emotion, social satisfaction, stress, mental engagement and even our culture.

"Time is incredibly flexible and we all experience it in different ways," Ogden explains.

In Iraq, for example, people she surveyed almost universally felt that time slowed. But half of U.K. respondents who experienced time distortion felt it moved faster than in what we've come to think of as "the before times." In Argentina, younger, physically active women felt time passed faster than older men. Ogden says it's hard to pinpoint the root cause of those differences, because there are so many different variables. Living in a war-torn area, or under strict lockdown policies, could help explain the differences in each country. "When life changes, time changes," Ogden says.

Emotions fiddle with time perception, too

At an individual level, though, the perception of time has a great deal to do with one's emotional state. And, of course, the pandemic caused lots of upheaval in that department — including for Arthur Wade Young III, a veteran mail carrier in Chevy Chase, Md.

Worrying about stuff every day — I think that kind of slowed things down for me. You know, fear takes control of our lives.

Normally, Young keeps to a schedule: Every weekday, for the past 12 years, he's walked a delivery route of 530 homes, with a navy blue satchel slung across his chest — except in 2020. That first year of the pandemic dealt Young multiple blows.

It started with an emergency appendectomy, followed by surgery on a torn knee ligament that kept him sidelined from work. He and his wife separated, and he worried constantly for his two school-aged daughters. Then, Young had three bouts with COVID. The first time it happened, he feared for his life.

What made all that worse, the customarily happy-go-lucky Young says, was having too much time to ponder his anguish: "Worrying about stuff every day — I think that kind of slowed things down for me. You know, fear takes control of our lives."

How our emotions such as fear influence our sense of time is a complex process that science only partially understands, says Ed Miyawaki, a Harvard neurologist; there is not a single place in the brain involved in timekeeping, but several. One place near the optic nerve tracks time, for example, which is how people sense time of day by daylight. Dopamine-rich networks in the brain teach us to anticipate rewards, he says, and the cerebellum, which allows us to time our movements, also has its own kind of clock.

"There's an emotional clock, there's a memory clock, there are all these kinds of clocks," Miyawaki says. However, they aren't particularly synchronized; the brain has no master clock. There's just complex interplay among our senses that act on our sense of time. That's partly what gives variability to our sense of time — why new experiences, like traveling to a foreign land, seem to stretch the day out, or why hours seem to vaporize for a kid engrossed in a video game.

Miyawaki, who is also a psychiatrist, says sometimes you can even see the differences in someone's internal sense of time. He's treated severely depressed patients who move extremely slowly, almost like sloths, because their emotional state has so altered their timing. "The idea that time is just one monolithic thing is just wrong," says Miyawaki.

'We're aware of the fragility of time'

After decades of research, he says, he concludes our sense of time comes from something beyond the brain. "The question is not just one of science, but also one of psychology, sociology, philosophy," he says. "It has to do with so much more than what dopamine neurons are doing."

That resonates with Ruth Ogden, the psychology professor in the U.K. She says the pandemic alerted many of us to time's relationship to our sense of health and wellbeing. In fact, it seemed to call our attention to time itself.

"We're aware of time. We're aware of the fragility of time. We're aware of what happens when your time to do the things you want is taken away from you," she says. "And that's the real thing that will have changed, is how people value time."

That holds true for Arthur Wade Young, the mail carrier, who says he got through recent difficult times by becoming more spiritual. He also stopped eating meat, fish and dairy products and start working out, transforming his body and his health.

He resumed working a year ago, and got his rhythm and his paychecks back, he says, and that's made time feel like it's moving swiftly again. "Way quicker than the beginning of that pandemic," Young says.

Yet he also says he now looks at his life differently, having brushed up against his emotional rock bottom, then resurfacing. "I appreciate things more," he says; he makes sure he has a sense of spirituality and purpose every day.

"I try to put my time into my kids. I try to put more time into reading and stuff like that," he says, and all that makes him savor every moment.

This story is part of our periodic science series "Finding Time — a journey through the fourth dimension to learn what makes us tick."

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Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.