Flying Past or Moving Slow? Why Time Feels Weird in Lockdown

Some people may think the days have been speeding by during lockdown. For others, time may be passing at a snail's pace. Experts have explained to Newsweek why we "feel" time and what this might mean for how we remember lockdown.

Phrases such as "a watched pot never boils" and "time flies when you're having fun" point to the fact that humans experience similar phenomena in how they observe time.

It is often thought that we experience time as moving faster when we're not focused on it or are otherwise distracted. At the same time, time may feel slower if we're bored or paying too much attention to the clock.

Scientists have attempted to measure such experiences in the lab. Peter Tse, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, subjected participants to boring events followed by a more surprising stimulus. Participants reported that the surprising events felt like they lasted 50 percent longer than the boring ones.

There are a number of theories to explain this. All three of the time perception scientists Newsweek spoke to disregarded the idea that we have an internal clock measuring time, as some researchers previously believed.

Why we feel time

According to Tse, our experience of time is based on how much information we process in a given period. He told Newsweek: "When we attend to something, our rate of information processing increases. Since more units of information are processed per second, we subjectively feel that more time has passed, even when objectively, no more time has actually passed."

Warrick Roseboom, a lecturer in cognitive science at the University of Sussex in the U.K., also rejected the "internal clock" theory—which he linked to dopamine, a chemical in the brain.

Instead, he pointed to a theory called "predictive processing," which proposes that the brain classifies all the sensory inputs it receives, such as sight, smell and so on, and uses this classification system to predict what will happen in future. When these predictions are wrong, the brain has to "update" itself, which is why we experience time.

Roseboom said: "'Time' falls out of these processes when the classification systems fail to accurately predict their input—when the model of the world is somehow wrong and needs to be updated to reflect the new information."

Devin Terhune, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, said Roseboom's predictive processing approach was "very exciting", adding that his team was beginning to dabble in the theory as well.

However, he thinks dopamine could still play a part. He said there was a wealth of evidence from genetic and pharmacological studies that implicates dopamine in how we feel time, although the method is poorly understood.

Terhune told Newsweek: "Interestingly, there are some hints that dopamine might contribute to some of these effects. For example, research by Cassidy et al in 2018 found that under uncertainty, timing is more greatly influenced by predictions and that this 'uncertainty adjustment' was related to dopamine release in the striatum, a region repeatedly linked to timing."

So what does this mean for lockdown?

When we refer to time in lockdown, it is usually because we are looking back on it and remembering how long it felt. Scientists call this "retrospective judgments of time."

If someone is away on a weekend with friends, there are a lot of events occurring; a lot of "updates to your world model," as Roseboom describes in the predictive processing theory, and more to remember.

He adds: "A 'watched pot' is in some ways the very opposite. You are impatiently waiting for the culmination, intently thinking about time and how it is dragging.

"During that period it seems like there is lots of time, but when you later reflect on it, there is little content.

"For people in lockdown, working from home on Zoom calls, the past year might be more like the watched pot—it feels interminable while doing it, and you have one eye on when it will end, but in later reflecting on what has happened there isn't much there at all."

Roseboom added, however, that for people who have battled illness, worked on frontline services or lost loved ones, lockdown may have been full of incidents and will have seemed longer.

Tse looks at it another way. For him, if people are experiencing time flying by this year, it's a sign of hope. He said: "It means that people are not paying attention to the clock or the calendar as much this year, as they did last year. It means they are getting more engaged with life. It means that they are starting to feel more hopeful and excited about living fully again, post-COVID and post-lockdown.

"We are no longer watching the pot, but instead paying attention to other things."

Person holding a clock
Stock image showing a hand holding an alarm clock. There are a number of theories to explain how humans perceive time. FotoDuets/iStock