Perception of Time

During the past year, it feels like time has been playing tricks on me, alternately creeping along, then whizzing by. And it’s not just me: friends, family and even the subjects of academic studies have reported similar perceptions.

It might be explained thus: the restrictions imposed by Covid have eliminated our traditional markers of time – appointments, holidays, social and cultural events, and the absence of these milestones, combined with social isolation and anxiety for what the future holds can be blamed for distorting our perception of how time passes. Covid has caused us to question many things. Time is one of them.

But there is more to it. According to psychiatrist Dr. Pavan Madam, the more novel experiences we have the longer time feels. This is explained by the theory that “the more emotions a situation generates, the more we remember it”. In other words, the events that matter most to us are recalled in detailed slow-motion, not in a blur of sameness.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to reconsider our attitude to time, the one that is typified by sayings like “time is money” or “killing time murders opportunity” and that reinforce our rigid definition of it as a finite chronological scale. The ancient Greeks understood this as chronos, but they also had another concept, kairos, which emphasised its qualitative rather than quantitative essence, and was defined as the proper or opportune time for something new. I used to see time as strictly chronos, something that worked against me. I never had enough of it. I worried about wasting it or losing it and that led to restricting, demanding schedules and stress-inducing ‘to-do’ lists. I still have them, but they are now balanced by a ‘not to do list’, which allocates Kairos time for just being.  I’ve not been brave enough to take off my watch, but I am working towards that freedom.  Still, taking time out and doing things for ‘no reason’ has been an awakening for me and has made my life so much more diverse, rich and rewarding. 

So, the period of Covid has stretched my understanding of time and I now feel that it is perfectly okay for its passing to feel different. Fast or slow, I am thankful for both.

If you’d like a tune to accompany this article the obvious one is Pink Floyd’s (7 minute) track - Time.

And if you want to explore ‘time’ a bit more check out, physicist, Carlo Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time.  He makes a compelling argument that chronology and continuity are just a story we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence.