clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the pandemic messed with our perception of time

A neuroscientist explains how history, mood, and surprise can make life feel like a slog — or go by in a blur.

A swirly psychedelic illustration of visions entering a person’s perception. Getty Images
Oshan Jarow is a Future Perfect fellow, where he focuses on economics, consciousness studies, and varieties of progress. Before joining Vox, he co-founded the Library of Economic Possibility, where he led policy research and digital media strategy.

It’s tempting to imagine memory as a videotape that stores and plays back the past just as it happened. But the workings of the mind are not so simple. Memory is more of a creative act, reconstructing the past under the often hasty and biased influences of the present.

The “creation” of memory doesn’t only influence what we remember, it influences our sense of time’s duration too. Having more memories available for recall can stretch our sense of how much time has passed, while our moods and emotions can tune the richness of what we remember up or down.

This all means news, current events, and the technologies that convey them (like the internet) can influence our perception of time passing slowly or quickly, by influencing how strongly we remember things.

But exactly how this interaction plays out, scientists still know very little about.

2020’s seemingly endless brigade of big stories might’ve stretched time to feel like a decade passed. But that stream of news was delivered to populations on lockdown, where every day looked the same and time became something of an undifferentiated blurry lump. How did this all influence our perception of how much time passed?

Enter a new paper by cognitive neuroscientist Nina Rouhani and colleagues, who analyzed Americans’ reported memories of 2020, leveraging the dual turbulences in news events and individual memories to learn more about how each shapes the other.

They found that the pandemic scrunched the distance between remembered events, like compressing a slinky. Everything seemed closer together. In our memories, if not in real life, time shrank. But as with most memories, there’s plenty more to unpack.

How the pandemic gave researchers a treasure trove of memory

Well before the pandemic, Rouhani was busy studying how we remember surprising events. But a lot of this work was in computer models, where modeling the depths and complexities of human memory isn’t a perfect science. Then, as her PhD dissertation defense began approaching, the pandemic hit, and she decided to study memory formation in near-real time.

Timelines of major events in 2020 are almost comically overflowing — the headline frenzy, the tragedies, the uncertainty. It was a perfect time to study how current events impact memory.

Rouhani drew from a large study that was underway, which was collecting people’s psychological and social experiences during the pandemic. It was a trove of memories. A few times a month from April 2020 through January 2021, over 1,000 Americans were prompted by an online survey platform to report on their lives during the pandemic.

In addition to these monthly reports, Rouhani and colleagues collected three memory dumps from participants across three years: 2020, 2021, and 2023. These were prompts to tell the researchers everything they could possibly remember during a certain time period (with approximate dates) until no more came to mind.

These methods filled in the individual’s side of things, but Rouhani was also interested in the relationship between surprising collective events and personal memories. The literature on “flashbulb memories” — as these events are called by scientists — finds that we vividly remember the moments we first learn of surprising events. We remember where we were, how we felt, and maybe some other oddly particular detail or two.

The question, then, was how to collect “collective memories,” which presents a few challenges.

“The challenge we face here is: Whose collective memory?” Rouhani says. “Many different kinds of collective histories are formed, especially nowadays when people have access to their own local ways of defining what’s happening.”

They approximated collective memory by taking the two highest Google Trends for each month of 2020 — from Kobe Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash to the killing of George Floyd (the negative news bias is on full display here). Participants were asked questions about each, from how vividly they could recall them to how far apart they remember them being.

So with a trove of memory data in hand, Rouhani could start to ask questions about how all these events altered the perception of time.

Which impacted our pandemic memories more, monotony or surprise?

Going into the study, Rouhani and colleagues had a few sets of questions. The first centered on duration.

Past memory research found that surprising events create “event boundaries” in memory. Think of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., or 9/11. These events divide our pools of memory into sections. We categorize memories as happening pre-9/11 or post, for example. Carving more boundaries into a given passage of time can ‘stretch’ our memory of duration. According to this hypothesis, our memory during the period of lockdowns would inflate — spreading events to seem farther away from each other.

But then, there was the monotony. Lockdowns imposed a sameness on our daily activities, where the lack of changing context could muddle everything into a compressed memory of time. “If you think about the processes you’re using when thinking about subjective time perception,” Rouhani said, “one of them is the number of memories. When you go on vacation and come back it feels like a century has passed.” That’s because changing scenery leads to more memories. “So it feels longer,” she said, “and lockdowns did the opposite of that.”

Just as astronomers measure cosmic expansion by tracking the growing distance between galaxies, Rouhani and colleagues looked at the subjectively reported distances between big news events, and found evidence that the compression hypothesis wins out. When recalling events during Covid, participants remembered them as being closer together than when they recalled events of similar distance before or after the pandemic. The sense of time, in other words, shrank.

A separate set of hypotheses focused on emotion. Especially charged events, whether positive or negative, tend to be easier to recall. But during negative times, chronic stress tends to block memory formation. Rouhani explained that in clinical disorders like depression or PTSD, memory is often blunted. While you may have plenty of flashbacks or ruminations, the details blur, and your ability to reconstruct the particulars fades.

The study analyzed the reported memories to find any links between emotional states and memory. Their results confirmed that bad moods lead to a greater volume of memory recall, especially for those who scored high on markers of depression or PTSD. But the blurring effect was also confirmed — while they recalled more memories, the actual quality of memory was worse.

“Having strong negative emotions can improve your memory,” Rouhani said. “But if you enter into this chronic state of trauma or depression, it removes the specificity of those memories.”

There’s also a wrinkle here: Despite the higher volume of memory recall among those most emotionally impacted by the pandemic, the fabric of memory still grew closer together across all participants, and perceived time compressed in memory.

Using the past to heal the future

If the pandemic feels like a blur, or if details don’t readily come to mind, the study helps explain why. Learning more about these flourishes of memory gives us a fuller perspective on the relationship between the worlds our minds conjure and the experiences they reflect.

But the research has more to offer. How we remember the past can provide clues as to the ways stressful or anxious memories may continue to distort our present, or even how we envision the future.

It’s tempting to let stressful memories, like low points from the lockdowns, remain as Rouhani found them: blurred, compressed, and behind us. But “not having specific markers of your past can lead to many external events that trigger trauma-related emotions, generating repetitive, crippling memory,” she said.

In other words, lack of detail in remembering one’s stressful past raises the odds that it may show up and haunt the present. But the good news is that you can flip this all around. Since memory is always recreated on the fly, it’s always open to reinterpretation. Intentionally remembering the past in more vivid detail — called episodic memory induction — can untangle its hold on the present, and even expand our ability to imagine alternative, brighter futures. All that’s required is a focus on recalling specific details from stressful memories in the past, meaning you can take your pick of journaling, talking with a friend or therapist, or just remembering on your own.

While the study of emotion’s effects on memory is already well established, we’re still in the very early days of understanding how time perceptions can get distorted. This study suggested that monotony may have a greater impact than surprising news stories (i.e. flashbulb memories), but do some forms of monotony carry more weight than others?

For example, the study suggests that the extended sameness of our lockdown days compressed how we remember the time. But sameness can come in a variety of forms — physical environments, activities, moods. “If we go through 10 different emotions during a day versus 10 different geographic locations,” Rouhani mused, “how do those two contribute to my time perceptions? Do they affect it the same or differently?”

She’s not yet sure. “Memory is biased in such unintuitive but consistent ways,” she says. It will take further research to figure out.

The stakes of understanding memory may be on the rise. We’re on the brink of a new era of brain-machine interfaces that will likely throw a new set of questions, functions, and biases around memory into the mix.

“There’s a lot of really exciting new work that’s applying collective memory to cognitive science, but it’s rather new still,” Rouhani said. “In terms of open questions, I could go on forever. There’s so much more that’s unanswered.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.