Thanks to the email exchange that set it up, I know the date of my last trip to a bar with a friend: Friday, March 13th. I remember what I ate and drank and what I talked about with the friend in question (yes, by that point we probably should have known it was a bad idea to be out at a bar, but in our defense a lot of other people hadn’t yet gotten the message either). It’s all very vivid — I even remember exactly where I was in my Prospect Park run when I got the email seeing if I wanted to meet him. But despite the crispness of these memories, when I think back to that evening, it genuinely feels like it occurred in November or December.
In asking around, I’ve found that many people have experienced the same thing. As the new reality of coronavirus has swept over the country and gradually sunk in, it has brought with it a strange distortion of time. March, naturally, was the month most affected: It feels like someone physically stretched it out, like it took 100 days for it to unfold in all its horror and weirdness.
I was curious why this happened, so I emailed a few psychologists who study the way humans perceive time. It’s worth noting that this is a particularly difficult subject to study rigorously, so there’s a bit of informed speculation involved. “Questions about real-life timing are always hard to answer because research is so difficult to do and you never know how applicable things that are discovered in the lab actually are,” said John Wearden, a professor emeritus at Keele University in the U.K. and the author of The Psychology of Time Perception. There’s a big, obvious difference between (say) inviting someone into a lab and asking them to estimate how long a given short event takes, and how people gauge lengths of time in the real world, where they’re beset by other influences and distractions lab experiments are specifically designed to filter out. So just because a given effect is discovered in a lab doesn’t mean it applies outside that lab.
Still, psychologists do have some general ideas about how various factors affect people’s perception of the flow of time. One important variable, when it comes to coronavirus, is likely how genuinely shocking the last month has been. “In my view, it’s due to the upheaval and shock we’ve been through,” said Steve Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University in the U.K. “It’s well known that shock and trauma slow down our time perception — it often happens in car crashes, robberies and falls. So I think it’s a variation of that.”
Of course, for the average American there have been a few truly shocking moments, but much of the last month hasn’t quite reached that emotional pitch. Another sturdy finding from this area of behavioral science, though, is that novelty itself can cause time to seem to pass a bit slower. That’s mostly because the newer something it is, the more likely it is to gain our attention, and attention, in turn, slows time down. “Paying attention makes events seem to pass more slowly, or to last longer, relative to events of the same objective duration that are not attended,” explained Peter U. Tse, a psychology and neuroscience researcher at Dartmouth University. (Taylor made this point as well.)
After all, the last month has been a never-ending ping, ping, ping of extraordinary, often terrible news events from at home and abroad. Every surreal Donald Trump press conference, every wave of reports out of China or Italy or New Jersey has been, if nothing else, novel. “There have been so many novel and attention-demanding events recently, that time may have dilated, making this recent span seem to have lasted much longer than a comparable period of ordinary or expected events,” explained Tse. This also applies to personal events like new work-from-home routines, Zoom happy hours, and so forth. Over the last month, many people have experienced the very strange situation of racking up a surprisingly large number of novel experiences from within the confines of their own homes.
So that’s one part of the puzzle. But if you think back over the last month, you’ve probably noticed that it isn’t just the novel events that seemed to dilate time, but also the long, boring, monotonous stretches — of which there have been plenty, since for most Americans, there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to see. Researchers have a potential explanation for this, too. “There’s also an idea that stimuli which evoke negative emotions seem longer than neutral or positive ones of the same actual length,” said Wearden. “There’s quite a bit of evidence for this, but it mostly comes from judgements of short stimuli lasting a few seconds, or often less than one second, so it might not be applicable to the kind of situations you’re talking about.” While this problem with extrapolating from lab findings is quite real and worth keeping in mind, there’s a lot of evidence from other areas of psychology to suggest that humans have a general negativity bias — all else being equal we attend more to, and spend more time thinking about, negative things than positive things. So it stands to reason that, six hours of boredom during a dark, depressing, anxiety-inducing period are likely to stretch out more than six hours of boredom during a period when things are going okay overall.
This whole time-distortion thing feels like insult atop injury: In addition to the fear and sickness and death and economic damage, we also have to experience this all in a sort of semi-slow-motion? At least there’s a silver lining, albeit a particularly thin one: All the ways that novelty seems to stretch time out will also apply when the virus abates. That first time back at your favorite bar, that first time picnicking with friends, that first time seeing older relatives you stayed away from due to fear of infecting them — all of those experiences will be highly emotionally arousing, memorable, and will likely feel like they took up a big chunk of time.
It just might be a particularly long-feeling wait to get to those happy moments.