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Columns, Opinions

Hong ’24: The coronavirus has warped time. Here’s what you can do about it.

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Eight months have passed since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, but sometimes it feels like we never left March. Among fear, anxiety and mind-deadening boredom, the pandemic has upended our sense of time. Our lives are no longer punctuated by daily trips to work or memorable weekends. Now, our days are marked by little more than when we wake up and go to bed — and even that might not be regular. On Halloween, The New York Times even published an article calling 2020 “The Year of Blur.”

Despite the drastic distortion of our sense of time, we don’t have to actually relinquish our control of time to the pandemic. It’s true that we can’t predict when the coronavirus will stop plaguing our country. Nor can we go in search of many novel, in-person experiences. Our internal clocks, however, can be adjusted. While mental time distortions can indicate how we remember our experiences and, in turn, how meaningful our lives feel, being aware of time “warps” can help us boost our memories — enriching our lives even during these strange times.

The first step is to recognize why our perception of time distorts. The brain’s perception of time is linked to attention. In the words of David Eagleman, an American neuroscientist, “Time is this rubbery thing. … It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.” The more attention you give to something, the slower time may feel. New experiences, to which we pay more attention, may alter our sense of time as we are more aware of what happens in each passing moment.

Let’s take, for example, my last day of in-person high school — the day before we moved to remote instruction, in March. Teachers and students alike thrummed with anxiety and anticipation (doubtless, none of us expected the pandemic to last eight months). I checked my phone constantly for news updates, and the hours crawled by that day.

My fear and anxiety slowed down the time. There was so much new, alarming information that and my fight-or-flight instincts kicked in, making me hyper-aware of my surroundings. This hyper-awareness, in turn, resulted in more encoded memories in my brain. In retrospect, that single day felt longer than an entire school week — I remember it far more clearly than many other moments I wish I could still picture.

To take control of our time, of course, we shouldn’t artificially create more fear and anxiety in our lives just to make ourselves more cognizant of our surroundings. The pandemic crisis has caused enough strife already. Instead, to retain the same clarity without profound stress, we can adopt a greater awareness of our surroundings in our daily lives. We can do this by being mindful: both by paying attention to what we see and feel, and by thinking — really thinking — about what we are doing each day and whether it is worth our time.

Research has shown that mindfulness practices, such as meditation, can alter our experience of time. In a study from 2013, researchers from the University of Kent’s School of Psychology hypothesized that, “given its emphasis on moment-to-moment awareness,” mindfulness meditation would alter a person’s perception of time. Participants in the study either listened to an audio book or a meditation breathing exercise for 10 minutes, and were asked to estimate durations of time before and after listening. While “the control group showed no change” after listening, the “meditation led to a relative overestimation of durations.” In other words, meditation can slow our subjective perception of time.

Besides mindfulness meditation, there are many other ways that we can alter our experience of time. Often, we’ve heard the phrase “time flies when you’re having fun” — but time also flies when we’re sitting mindlessly in front of the TV, scrolling through endless social media feeds or going through a repetitive quarantine routine. To stop time from passing so quickly and meaninglessly, we can disconnect from our LED screens or change our daily routines. Conversely, if time is passing too slowly, we can engage in a fun hobby or call up a few friends.

While our experience of time is influenced by many factors, how we remember these moments from the future can be even more complicated. Sometimes, our feeling of time “in the moment” and in hindsight are inversely related: The longer the time feels in the present, the shorter it will be in our memory, and vice versa. A day of slow, absolute boredom will be remembered as a snapshot in memory. A fast, fun day of meeting people will be filled with memories, making that day seem longer in retrospect.

So, why does it matter that time seems to warp? Well, our experience of time, which is linked to our awareness, often tells us how we will remember a given moment. Mindfulness, which alters time perception and allows us to appreciate our surroundings, can augment our memories, enriching and “lengthening” our lives. It can make things more vivid, injecting color into days that are awash in shades of dull gray. Richer, more abundant memories will lead to richer lives, whereas a life without memories — without life experience to draw from — is not a life at all.

Time perception reflects how we live in a day, and how that day will be encoded in our memories. So, the next time you feel lost in the distortions of “coronatime,” maybe stop to think about what you are doing. In a time where there is so much we can’t control, small choices can make a big difference: Practice mindfulness, disconnect from your LED screen or break out of your quarantine routine. Gain control of time, and you’ll be on the path towards meaningful memories  — even in these strange times.

Jaehyun Hong ’24 can be reached at jaehyun_hong@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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