Why Dates and Times Seem to Lose Their Meaning

The dates on the calendar and the time on a clock are some of the most ubiquitous and easily understood numbers in our lives. And yet, over the past two years, many Americans have felt that time is blurring: they lose track of the day or hour, think more (or less) time has passed than it actually has, and can’t tell exactly when a traumatic event actually happened.

It’s not her imagination. Psychology has a term for it: “temporal disintegration”—when the present seems disconnected from the continuity of time—and it plays an important role in how we perceive and respond to trauma.

“One of the most fundamental and important principles that is so critical to our ability to function is that we have a sense of the flow of time,” said Alison Holman, professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine. She recently published research showing that the majority of Americans have likely experienced at least some temporal decay during the pandemic era.

That finding, she said, could hamper recovery from the pandemic: “When people have a really disrupted sense of time, they have a hard time moving on. They find it difficult to focus on getting back into their lives and rebuilding their sense of the future.”

It’s normal to focus on the present and shut out the past and future. But if you often don’t know what day of the week it is, or can’t remember if something important in your life happened a day, month, or year ago, or feel like the past and future have disappeared, then one more There could be a serious time warp at work.

Extent to which Americans have experienced different types of blurring of time” in the first six months of the pandemic

Do you focus on the present moment?

Did you feel like weekdays and weekends were the same?

Did you feel like time slowed down or stood still?

Did you feel like time was flying by?

Not sure what time or day it was?

You forgot what just happened or felt unclear

the order of events you just experienced?

Do you focus on the present moment?

Did you feel like weekdays and weekends were the same?

Do you feel uncertain about the future?

Did you feel like time slowed down or stood still?

Did you feel like time was flying by?

Not sure what time or day it was?

You forgot what just happened, didn’t you

feeling unclear about the order of events

just experienced?

Do you focus on the present moment?

It felt like there were weekdays and weekends

the same?

Do you feel uncertain about the future?

Did you feel like time slowed down or stood still?

Did you feel like time was flying by?

Not sure what time or day it was?

You forgot what just happened, didn’t you

feeling unclear about the order of events

just experienced?

In an August article for the journal Psychological Trauma, Drs. Holman and co-authors on a series of questions they asked a panel of 5,661 – such as how much they had “focused on the present moment” (76.9% said they had felt that way at times), “feeling unsure of what time or what day it was” (46%) or “caught forgetting what just happened or feeling unsure of the order of events you just experienced.” ‘ (35%).

The researchers combined the responses to create an index of how much someone experienced wasting time. They found that more than half of Americans experienced most of these distortions at least some of the time during the pandemic.

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Ian Phillips, a professor of philosophy and psychology at Johns Hopkins University, looked at some unusual studies to quantify time blur. In 1962, French speleologist Michel Siffre spent 60 days in a cave without sunlight, watches or wristwatches. He used a landline number to call his research partners on the surface at mealtimes, before bed, and after waking up so they could track his time without him knowing.

After a while he tried to count to 120 seconds by seconds. It took him five minutes. When his experiment ended after 60 days, he thought that only 35 days had passed. In other words, his sense of time completely dissipated. He repeated the experiment 10 years later with seven months of stretching and not only lost his sense of time again but succumbed to severe depression.

Or consider a particularly wild experiment from 1961: people were asked to estimate a 5-second interval while on a platform that was being pushed either toward or away from a cliff. Those who were knocked to the edge experienced a 20% time slowdown compared to those who were knocked back.

A key finding of this research is that time distortion correlates with stress. Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo developed the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, which consists of about five dozen questions about attitudes and perceptions of the past, present, and future. Studies by the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory show that a balanced time perspective, one that is neither stuck in the past nor fatalistic about the future, is a powerful contributor to well-being.

dr Phillips said: “It’s really hard to unravel. Does time warping cause mental health issues in humans or is it just related to that?”

While earning her Ph.D. In 1993 Dr. Holman considered a temporary experimental study, but the kinds of experiments approved by the ethics committee — such as asking subjects to give a speech or sticking their hand in particularly cold water — didn’t closely resemble trauma .

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She then met with a colleague who was in the midst of one of a series of firestorms that swept through Laguna Beach and Malibu, California that year, destroying hundreds of homes and displacing residents. The Los Angeles Times reported of a local resident saying of the firestorms: “This is hell dude. I expect Satan to come out anytime now.”

dr Holman interviewed the displaced residents immediately, within 36 hours of the evacuation. After months of tracking, she and her colleague Roxane Cohen Silver concluded that those who experienced the most severe temporal decomposition immediately after the fires experienced the most distress a year later.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

In what ways, if any, have you experienced a time warp during the pandemic? Join the conversation below.

In other words, extreme time distortion can be a warning sign that someone going through a stressful event – Covid, wildfires, or any kind of grief or life disruption – is at risk of being traumatized by it long afterward and having trouble moving on.

What to do? Psychologists have developed time-perspective therapies (a type of talk therapy, not drug) that seem to help at least some people.

dr However, Phillips of Johns Hopkins first approached the study of time as a philosopher and suggests some simple advice for those losing their sense of time:

“If you want to report that time is of the essence, my life is disappearing, maybe you should just try to bring in more distinctive or unique experiences…then there’s more to your story and it won’t slip through your fingers.”

write to Josh Zumbrun at [email protected]

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