2020 felt like a time warp. Quarantine days melded together, the months flew by, the hours felt like they lasted days; reality didn’t seem real. Now that vaccines are rolling out to the majority of the population, and COVID-19 cases are decreasing, it feels like there’s light at the end of the winding tunnel. Maybe time will feel linear again.
We’ve all had monotonous days, but the pandemic has made the monotony numbing and infinite. Pre-COVID, I could end my boredom by calling my friends to go see a movie or wandering through local thrift stores. There were ways to escape too much alone time. Once all of those escapes were taken away, time seemed to stop indefinitely, along with any sort of natural, comfortable social contact or future-planning. Therefore, every day started to feel like a reflection of the day before, until, suddenly, it became another year.
After talking with peers, friends, and family, I was comforted by the fact that everyone felt this weird, rapid and creeping pandemic time warp. I remember the last week before everything changed so vividly. My partner drove to Pratt to pick me up, and we then spent my spring break traveling to Maine, visiting various lighthouses and adventuring at Acadia National Park. Once our nature getaway ended, we headed back to Brooklyn where he was supposed to drop me off and drive back home himself.
But as we neared the end of the trip, we realized he wasn’t just dropping me off at my dorm—the end of spring break became the start of Tetris-ing all of my belongings into his Honda Civic and driving 10 hours back to my hometown after the dorms were shut down. Shortly after arriving home, we were confined in a lockdown and plunged into uncertainty of “when” things would go back to “normal.”
In my head, that vacation now seems like two different experiences. There was one trip where we had an amazing week-long adventure, and another that included the panic-filled moments leading up to packing my education and Brooklyn-life into a suitcase and relocating it to my childhood bedroom. Despite this, both experiences feel like they were month-long endeavors from an eternity ago.
This phenomenon relates to the “holiday paradox,” which is an idea coined by journalist, author and psychology lecturer, Claudia Hammond. The holiday paradox states that, when you are on vacation, time seems to go fast as you experience new things and create new memories; when you’re home and looking back on those memories, it seems like you’ve been away way longer, as those memories create timestamps in your brain to gauge time. Since I had such memorable moments leading up to being confined in my home, my brain holds onto those memories and makes them appear longer than they actually were.
Kevin LaBar, head of the Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Duke University, explains, “When you’re in a constrained environment, your brain is not getting as many squirts of dopamine that keep it engaged and excited, and the brain ends up in this idling mode.” Essentially, being confined to our homes during the pandemic has left us drowning in monotony. Our brains don’t have enough stimulation to create new memory-markers; therefore the days blend together in one chunk of never-ending time.
Emotions also have a large impact on the way we experience time. We have neurons in our brain that act like a metronome, keeping time in a steady beat. Heightened emotions, such as anxiety or fear, can disrupt its rhythm, making the metronome beat quicker. In a study conducted by Sylvie Droit-Volet, a French professor of cognitive and developmental psychology, Droit-Volet and her colleagues presented three types of videos to their students and gauged their reactions. One video induced fear by showing clips from various horror movies, another evoked sadness by showing clips from dramatic, heartfelt movies, and the third showed neutral videos, like the weather forecast or stock market updates. When the students estimated how long each video lasted, it was evident the one that evoked fear seemed to last longer.
The brain uses more of its resources to process negative emotions, so the memory sticks with us longer. The pandemic has filled us with such feelings. Stressful events unfolded socially and politically all while we handled work or school from home, sending us into a pit of self-reflection. We looked inwardly to handle the uncertainty of being in a pandemic while searching for a sense of normalcy. During a time of forever-churning reflection, LaBar explains, it can seem like you’ve invested longer because you just re-engage the same thought processes.
While anxiety and stress can make time feel slower, the lack of memory-markers adds to that sense of endlessness. Although, I’ve heard many people say that each day may seem like it flies by. Ever since my trip to Acadia, I’ve spent most of my time focusing on homework, working, cleaning my room, going on walks; all of these daily tasks give my brain something to complete. Then, achieving each task rewards my brain with a sense of accomplishment until suddenly it's the next day and the cycle repeats. While we are stuck in familiarity, routine is propelling our day. Repeating cycles can make it seem like time is going quicker, which muddles time even more in our brains as the feeling of slow time contradicts quick time. For example, quests in video games often feel like they’re going quick because you’re constantly motivated by the next step, even if each step involves the same process of walking and collecting to advance. Similarly, we live every day with small victories that help speed up time: getting up and brushing our teeth, feeding our dog, making a cup of coffee. These little moments help speed up the day, but since they’re repeated in pandemic-time, the lack of truly exciting moments slows that time back down when we look at it on a month to month basis.
All of this is to say that you’re not going crazy for thinking this last year has been a time-warp. This unexplainable phenomena is actually explainable. Though it will be a bit different for everyone, given different circumstances or the ways someone processes emotions, all of our brains have never experienced something as stressful as a pandemic. While I’m tired of taking things “a day at a time,” we can’t stress over the things we can’t control, or else time will go even slower.
Art by Noelani Fishman