Why Dates and Times Seem to Lose Their Meaning
The Covid-19 pandemic and other traumatic events can cause days to blur, a sign of stress
More than half of Americans experienced blurred time at least occasionally during the pandemic, one study found.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
By Josh Zumbrun, Oct. 7, 2022 5:30 am ET
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 time blur: They lose track of the day or hour, think more (or less) time has elapsed than actually has, and can’t place exactly when a traumatic event actually happened.
It isn’t their 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 and underlying principles, so critical to our ability to function, is we have a sense of the flow of time,” said Alison Holman, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine. She has recently published research showing a majority of Americans likely experienced at least some temporal disintegration 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 have a hard time focusing on getting back into their lives and rebuilding their sense of future.”
It’s normal to be focused on the present to the exclusion of the past and future. But if you frequently don’t know what day of the week it is or can’t recall if something important in your life happened a day, a month or a year ago, or feel like the past and future have disappeared, then a more serious time warp might be at work.
In an August paper for the journal Psychological Trauma, Dr. Holman and co-authors reported on a series of questions they asked a 5,661-person panel—such as to what extent they had been “focused on the present moment” (76.9% said they had felt that way sometimes), “felt unsure about what time or day it was” (46%) or “found yourself forgetting what just happened or feeling unclear about the order of events you just experienced” (35%).
The researchers combined the responses to create an index of how acutely someone experienced blurred time. They found that more than half of Americans experienced most of these distortions at least sometimes during the pandemic.
Ian Phillips, a professor of philosophy and psychology at Johns Hopkins University, has looked at some unusual studies to quantify time blurring. In 1962, French spelunker Michel Siffre spent 60 days in a cave, without sunlight, clocks or watches. He would call his research partners on the surface via a landline at meals, before sleeping and upon waking, so they could track his time without him knowing.
After some time, he would attempt to count to 120, one second at a time. It took him five minutes. When his experiment concluded after 60 days, he thought only 35 days had passed. In other words, his sense of time completely disintegrated. He repeated the experiment 10 years later with a seven-month stretch 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 either being pushed toward or away from a precipice. Those being hurled toward the edge experienced a 20% slowing in time vs. those being pushed away.
An important finding of this research is that time blurring is correlated with stress. Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo developed what became known as the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, consisting of about five dozen questions on attitudes and perceptions of the past, present and future. Studies of the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory show that a balanced time perspective, neither stuck in the past nor fatalistic about the future, contributes strongly to well-being.
Dr. Phillips said, “It’s really hard to disentangle. Does time blurring cause people to have problems with mental health, or is it just correlated with that?”
While pursuing her Ph.D. in 1993, Dr. Holman had considered an experimental study on time, but the sort of experiments approved by the ethics panel—such as asking subjects to give a speech or stick their hand in especially cold water—didn’t closely resemble trauma.
Then, she met with a colleague who had just encountered one of a series of firestorms that swept through Laguna Beach and Malibu, Calif., that year, destroying hundreds of homes and displacing the residents. The Los Angeles Times reported a resident saying of the firestorms: “This is hell, dude. I’m expecting to see Satan come out any time now.”
Dr. Holman immediately surveyed the displaced residents, within 36 hours of evacuation. After months of following up, she and her colleague Roxane Cohen Silver concluded that those who experienced the most severe temporal disintegration in the immediate aftermath of the fires experienced the highest distress a year later.
In other words, extreme time blurring might be a warning sign that someone going through a stressful event—Covid, wildfires or any sort of grief or disruption to life—risks being traumatized by it a long time later and struggling to move on.
What to do? Psychologists have developed time perspective therapies (a type of talk therapy, not medication-based) that seem to help at least some people.
Dr. Phillips of Johns Hopkins initially approached the study of time as a philosopher, however, and suggests some simple advice for those losing their sense of time:
“If you’re inclined to report that time is dragging, my life is vanishing, maybe the thing to do is simply try to inject more distinctive or unique experiences into it…then there’s more in your story to tell and it’s not slipping through your fingers.”