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Encore: How did COVID warp our sense of time? It's a matter of perception

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The pandemic did something strange to our sense of time. For some, it made time stand still.

RUTH OGDEN: Looking at the clock and thinking, oh, my God, it's still 6 hours until the kids are going to go to bed.

SHAPIRO: For others, time sped up.

ARTHUR WADE YOUNG III: It moved slow in the beginning and quick in the end.

SHAPIRO: How did COVID distort our perception of time? NPR's Yuki Noguchi explains as part of our series Finding Time: A Journey Through The Fourth Dimension To Learn What Makes Us Tick.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: COVID lockdown introduced a grinding tedium to Ruth Ogden's days.

OGDEN: It was like climbing a mountain that never ended.

NOGUCHI: She had a newborn and two older boys home from school. The park next to their home in Manchester, England, remained chained shut. In the confines of their three-bedroom duplex, time stagnated.

OGDEN: And it was absolute hell. And I kid you not, I could not believe there were 24 hours in the day. It dragged like a massive concrete rock behind me. It was horrendous.

NOGUCHI: But now, with the pandemic receding, Ogden says it feels different.

OGDEN: When I look back on it now, it seems like it didn't really happen. Like, I can't really remember anything about it. So in some ways it seems quite short.

NOGUCHI: Ogden is a psychologist at Liverpool John Moores University when she isn't a harried mom. Over the pandemic, she surveyed people in different countries about their perception of time. The results show just how variable our sense of time can be.

OGDEN: Time is incredibly flexible, and we all experience it in different ways.

NOGUCHI: In Iraq, for example, she found people almost universally felt time slowed. But half of U.K. respondents felt it moved faster. In Argentina, younger, physically active women felt time passed faster than older men. Ogden says it's hard to pinpoint the root of those differences. Living in a war-torn area under strict lockdown policies or differing cultural attitudes toward time may be at play. Either way, she says...

OGDEN: When life changes, different factors lead to differences in time experience in different cultures.

NOGUCHI: At an individual level, though, the perception of time has a great deal to do with one's emotional state. And, of course, the pandemic caused lots of upheaval there. Consider, for example, the experience of Arthur Wade Young III.

Wade.

YOUNG: Hello. How you doing?

NOGUCHI: I know him as Wade, our super-friendly mail carrier.

YOUNG: (Laughter).

NOGUCHI: Normally, Young keeps to a schedule. Every weekday, around 3:30 p.m., he bounds toward my house with a navy blue satchel slung across his chest. For 12 years, he's walked this route of 530 homes in Chevy Chase, Md., every day, every year except in 2020. That first year of the pandemic dealt him multiple blows. Surgery on a torn knee ligament kept him sidelined from work.

YOUNG: A few months before that, I had to have emergency surgery. I had to get my appendix taken out.

NOGUCHI: He and his wife also separated. He worried constantly for his two school-aged daughters. And that wasn't all.

YOUNG: I caught COVID about three times, actually.

NOGUCHI: Comorbidities made his first bout of COVID scary.

OK. So you were only going through a divorce...

YOUNG: Yeah.

NOGUCHI: ...A couple surgeries...

YOUNG: Yeah.

NOGUCHI: ...A pandemic...

YOUNG: Yes. Not working.

NOGUCHI: ...Not working...

YOUNG: Yes. Yes. Yes.

NOGUCHI: ...Some financial troubles - that sounds like loads of fun.

YOUNG: Yeah, it was (laughter).

NOGUCHI: What made it worse, he says, was having too much time to ponder his anguish.

YOUNG: Worrying about stuff every day. And I think that kind of slowed things down for me. You know, fear takes control of our lives.

NOGUCHI: I asked Ed Miyawaki, a Harvard neurologist, how emotions like fear influence our sense of time. It's complex, he says.

ED MIYAWAKI: There is no one place in the brain that is involved in timekeeping.

NOGUCHI: There is, for example, a place near the optic nerve that tracks time. That makes sense. We use light to sense time of day. And there are dopamine centers, where we learn to anticipate rewards, and the amygdala, which process memory and emotion.

MIYAWAKI: The cerebellum is involved in the timing of movement. There's a clock there. There's an emotional clock. There's a memory clock, all these kinds of clocks.

NOGUCHI: But, Miyawaki says, they aren't synchronized. The brain has no master clock. There's just complex interplay among our senses that act on our sense of time. Miyawaki, who is also a psychiatrist, says sometimes you can even see the differences in someone's internal sense of time. He's treated severely depressed patients who move extremely slowly, almost like sloths, because their emotional state has so altered their timing.

MIYAWAKI: The idea that time is one monolithic thing is just wrong.

NOGUCHI: So after decades of research, Miyawaki says he concludes our sense of time comes from something beyond the brain.

MIYAWAKI: The question is not just one of science but also one of psychology, sociology, philosophy.

NOGUCHI: That resonates with Ruth Ogden, the psychology professor in the U.K. She says the pandemic alerted many of us to time's relationship to our sense of health and well-being. In fact, it seemed to call our attention to time itself.

OGDEN: We are aware of time. We're aware of the fragility of time. And we're aware of what happens when your time to do the things you want is taken away from you. And I think that that is the real thing that will have changed, is how people value time.

NOGUCHI: That holds true for Arthur Wade Young, my neighborhood mail carrier. He says recent difficult times made him a more spiritual man.

YOUNG: I just prayed. And that was just about it, prayer.

NOGUCHI: He became vegan and worked out, transforming his body and his health. He resumed working a year ago and got his rhythm back. But he feels the experience changed him permanently.

YOUNG: You know, I just look at things differently. It's like I kind of hit rock bottom, but I didn't, you know what I'm saying?

NOGUCHI: Yeah.

YOUNG: I was almost there, but I wasn't. But I appreciate things more.

NOGUCHI: And he's changed how he spends his time.

YOUNG: Make sure I'm doing something worth my time every day, you know, not taking anything for granted. With all the people that were dying, you know, all around the world, I try to put more time into my kids, try to put more time into reading (laughter) and stuff like that.

NOGUCHI: Stuff that makes him savor the moment. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.
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