Time’s gone weird, hasn’t it? Hasn’t time gone weird? I’m really struggling with it at the moment. I don’t know what day it is. I’m not sure whether it’s day. It’s 2023 next year. It’s still March 2020. It’s the dead zone between Christmas and New Year. It’s been Wednesday for months. I’ll be dead soon. There are no weekends, and no weeks. I’m always at work. I’m always at home. Nothing has any edges. Time is not so much a flat circle as an amorphous blob, a vague nebula I hover suspended within where things that happened last year feel like yesterday and things that happened yesterday feel like last year.
So please, I beg of you: when will my concept of “linear time” come back from the war?
I think I thought that after lockdown was lifted, and things went back to some degree of “normal” – whatever that is – time would snap back into place and the days would resume their usual progression, Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday and so on. It’s not that I’m particularly attached to that order; it’s more that I feel like I blinked and lost a year, and then I blinked and lost another 9 months. And now I’m filled with existential dread that I will blink again and I’ll be 50 and then I’ll be 80 and still I’ll just be sitting here, in my house, drifting from the bed to the desk to the sofa to the bed, and then I’ll be dead. I’m not scared of death, you understand. I just didn’t expect it to run up behind me in this aggressive manner.
When I was at university I used to work part-time at the local hospital as an audio typist, writing up notes from the consultants and the nurses on their patients. After I had finished with the notes I would add them to their cardboard files, and then I would put all the cardboard files on a trolley and push them to another part of the hospital. It was a good job for me because I like typing, and I’m very fast at it, and also when you’re plugged into an audio cassette there’s no pressure to make conversation with other people in the office or pretend that you’re a nice person. The department I worked in was Psychiatry for Older People, so there was some pretty unsettling stuff in the notes, which I also liked.
When you’re admitted to hospital for psychiatric reasons as an older person you have to fill in a Mini Mental State Examination – MMSE – to assess your competency. One of the questions in it is what the date is. I was always astonished at this as a measure of mental competency. I remember thinking at the time, that I – as a feckless student – didn’t always know what the date was, and that once I was elderly and retired I would absolutely have no reason to know – indeed would actively seek not to know. And on that basis, I could be judged mentally incompetent or unsound.
(I should add of course that the MMSE is not a “one strike and you’re out” deal. The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.)
Our concept of time passing is driven by external stimuli: our diurnal rhythms chart the rise and fall of light levels, we go for our lunch break at roughly the same time every day, we leave the office at the same time every evening, we know that on Thursdays we have football practice or choir practice or book club, and on Fridays we usually go to the pub. We put something in our calendar for two weeks’ time, and we look forward to it, and after two weeks it happens, and then we put another thing in our calendar for two weeks’ time. But what happens when we decrease external stimuli, or get rid of them all together? What happens is this: time goes weird.
In 1962, French geologist Michel Siffre carried out a series of experiments where he sent people into dark caves for months without clocks, calendars or contact. Without the stimulus of natural light, subjects fell out of sync with our usual 24-hour day/night cycle. Some fell into a 48-hour rhythm, staying awake for 36 hours and then asleep for 12 (researchers have since discovered this is the pattern most people fall into without external input). At the end of the experiment, many subjects expressed surprise, thinking they had weeks or months left. When Siffre himself left the cave, he believed it to be August 20th – it was in fact September 14th, 25 days later. Conducting tests with his team on the surface, they discovered it took him five minutes to count to what he believed was 120 seconds.
And earlier this year, while many of us were still in lockdown indoors, 15 people were isolated in the Lombrives caves in France for 40 days and 40 nights, with no updates from the outside world and no daylight. Again, they lost their sense of time, with participants estimating their time underground at between 23 – 30 days.
While we thankfully haven’t been cut off from daylight, the external stimuli we are exposed to has nonetheless decreased. Things we might classify as ‘events’ are fewer and further apart, and without as much drive to stick to a strict structure or routine in our days and weeks, we are missing many of the waymarkers that usually chart our paths through life.
In his paper ‘The Inner Experience of Time’, researcher and author Marc Wittmann (author of Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time [MIT Press]) notes that, “Although we doubtless have a time sense, our bodies are not equipped with a sensory organ for the passage of time in the same way that we have eyes and ears—and the respective sensory cortices—for detecting light and sound. Time, ultimately, is not a material object of the world for which we could have a unique receptor system. Nevertheless, we speak of the perception of time. When we talk about time (‘an event lasted long’, ‘time flew by’), we use linguistic structures that refer to motion events and to locations and measures in space; a further indication that time itself is not a property in the empirical world.”
Our tendency to describe time in terms of space, place, and motion, makes intuitive as well as scientific sense: time is a property of space, and the two are bound together in physics to form the four-dimensional model we refer to as ‘spacetime’. Less scientific, but I think still intuitively true: the fact that our movement in and through space has been severely restricted over the past 18 months has had an impact on our perception of our movement in and through time. We physically haven’t travelled through space very much, so we feel like we haven’t travelled through time very much either, and then are surprised when we look up to find that it’s next month.
I don’t know how to fix this, how to hold onto the time that’s running between my fingers. There are events in my calendar again, but I can no longer meaningfully differentiate between the ones that are next week and the ones that are in August 2022. Should I fictionalise a strict routine to stick to, to give myself new rhythms? Should I restart my silly little daily walk, to try to trick my brain into thinking I’m moving? What do we use now as waymarkers, in a world that’s lost its way?
I started writing this ten minutes ago and now it’s two hours later.
Nat Guest is a some-time writer and full-time marketer living and working in London. She has been published in The Independent, The Sunday Times, The New Statesman, and Skeptic Magazine, amongst others. She can usually be found in the woods foraging for mushrooms, or on Twitter perpetually @unfortunatalie.