Explained: Our Bizarre Perception of Time in 2020

Explained: Our Bizarre Perception of Time in 2020

Why do some months drag on while others go in the blink of an eye? It’s largely due to our bizarre perception of time in 2020, a year that’s been completely transformed due to the pandemic and wreaked havoc with our perception of time. 

Cognitive neuropsychologist Muireann Irish has told the ABC’s Hack program that if you’ve felt as though 2020 has been a huge year, while also speeding past, it’s completely normal. She says that for many, 2020 has felt like a “gaping, sort of fluid existence.” 

This is due to the fact that “the things that we tend to use as anchors, to delineate or to mark passing of time have no longer been occurring,” the Associate Professor explained. “That can, in one sense, contribute to this altered perception of time that we might have at the moment.” 

While it’s unclear exactly how this takes place in the human psyche, the Associate Professor did state that those age-old cliches of “time flies when you’re having fun” and “a watched kettle never boils,” do hold a remarkable amount of truth. 

“It’s been suggested that [how we feel time is passing] is something to do with our levels of focus or our physical state… even our mood,” Irish said. “So if we’re multitasking, and we’re busy with many different things at once, then we have less attentional resources to monitor the passing of time, which means we might feel that it’s passing more swiftly.” 


Explained: Our Bizarre Perception of Time in 2020

“Now, a lot of routines have slowed down a bit in the COVID-era,” Professor Irish said, adding that “we’re sitting up and noticing time passing in a different way, I think.” 

“It’s been suggesting that particularly negative emotions can change the way in which we remember the timing of particular events… negative emotional events might actually produce a time dilation effect, which means that you perceive the time is passing much more slowly.” 

Irish points to the example of something like a car crash, where occupants often report watching the events take place in something close to slow motion. Research suggests that this is the brain acting defensively, all the while taking in even the smallest of details. 

“Rather than altering our perception of time during the fearful event itself, it’s more that the amygdala is firing up to make sure that we record the event in really vivid detail. It’s sort of like an evolutionary adaptive mechanism to make sure that you don’t go out and experience that fearful or harmful event again,” she said. 

Professor Irish added in her interview with Hack that if you’re feeling particularly loathsome of how time is passing, and it’s becoming a genuinely negative part of your day, it’s important to find ways “to punctuate or break up the monotony of the day when you don’t have a lot to do.” 

This could be something like investing more time into a hobby of yours, taking the time out – where applicable – to go for a walk or to exercise at your local park or the beach. For some, this is an easier-feat than others, especially for any parents that are negotiating the tricky juggling act of kids, work and their own personal mental health. 

Don’t underestimate the importance of taking some selfish time for yourself. You’ll be more productive in your efforts at work, and you’ll keep your brain topped up with the chemicals that are essential to optimal cognitive functions and health. 

Thanks for your time – no pun intended – and i’ll see you in the next piece. 

Kobi Simmat. 

Explained: Our Bizarre Perception of Time in 2020

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