These past few weeks, time has lost all meaning. Days feel like weeks. Weeks feel like months. Although it has technically only been a couple of weeks since the World Health Organisation has declared this to be a pandemic, for many of us, it feels like this has been going on for years now.
As it turns out, this warping of time has an explanation rooted in how our brains record memories during times of extreme fear and stress. The most famous experiment demonstrating this effect was performed by neuroscientist David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, author, and writer/director of the PBS series “The Brain with David Eagleman.”
As Eagleman explains in the first episode of his PBS series, to answer this question of whether our perception of time slows down when we are afraid, he devised an experiment where volunteers jumped off a 150-foot platform. During their fall, he had them look at a digital display strapped to their wrists which was flashing numbers that were changing at a rate that was just a little too fast for human comprehension.
The theory was that if their perception of time was actually slowing down, they would be able to read the numbers. But they couldn’t, which suggests that our perception of time isn’t altered during moments of extreme fear.
Instead, the answer seems to lie in how our brain records memories during these times and how we recall these memories. When we are afraid, our brain gets kicked into high gear, with everything focused on noticing every tiny detail, in an effort to keep us alive.
As Eagleman explains in this video, “People don’t actually see time in slow motion during an event.” Instead, when you are in a life-threatening moment, your brain records this memory in much greater detail. Then, when you recall this memory, your brain gets confused by all of these extra details, and is tricked into thinking this event lasted longer than it actually did.
Right now, in the era of COVID-19, we are all on high alert. All of our collective attention is focused on one thing and one thing alone: keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy. This means monitoring news stories for updates, as well as becoming hyperaware of anything and everything we are doing that might spread disease. We’ve all been focusing on hand-washing techniques, monitoring our own health for hints we might be getting sick, and following updates on the new number of cases.
So that sense you have, that time has entered a warped new reality? Turns out it’s your brain, doing what it is meant to do during times of fear and uncertainty.