Lockdown: A time paradox

Liam Myles proposes an explanation around why time is perhaps seeming to drag, yet we struggle to recall what we have done.

After discussions with my family, friends and colleagues, I was surprised to learn that we were all having a very similar, yet bizarre, experience. Lockdown has felt particularly long and tedious but, despite this, we struggled to remember what we had done. Our memories seemed to merge into one another and it felt as though nothing had really happened. I began to question why we were having this, seemingly paradoxical, perception of time.

To answer this question, we must turn our attention to memory. In our daily lives, we are exposed to a vast and continuous stream of sensory information. However, this is not how we perceive our experiences in memory. Episodic memory, the conscious recollection of events (Tulving, 2002), conveniently segments this overwhelming quantity of information into discrete and digestible episodes. But how does it do this?

Recent literature indicates that spatial environments may entail a role in this segmentation process (Kurby & Zacks, 2008; Radvansky, 2017; see also the Research Digest coverage of a 2011 Radvansky study). Evidence that spatial cues influence where an episode starts and ends comes from researchers at University College London, who asked participants to navigate through a labyrinth (Horner et al., 2016). Participants had worse memory for objects that they had previously encountered if they had navigated through a doorway between viewing the object and recall, than if they had traversed the same distance but not navigated through a spatial boundary. Importantly, trivial explanations of such results have been ruled out (Radvansky et al., 2011; Seel et al., 2019). The poorer recollection observed after participants had crossed a spatial boundary supports the notion that spatial environments serve as a cue for the cessation of one episode and the beginning of another.

These results provide some insight into this paradoxical experience of time during lockdown. Prior to lockdown, we regularly experienced changes in our spatial environments. We might get ready in our homes, before heading to our local café for our morning coffee. After this, we might commute by train to our offices, where we would regularly move between rooms for different meetings. After work, we might go to our favourite restaurant for dinner, before returning home. During lockdown, this simply isn’t the case. Now, most of our time is spent in a restricted number of environments, largely consisting of our homes and the supermarket. Accordingly, there are fewer spatial boundaries that can serve to segment our experiences into discrete episodes, resulting in the paradoxical perception that a vast quantity of time has passed but that it is difficult to recall exactly what we have done. 

If you’re wanting to break the monotony of lockdown, then these theories underscore the importance of not just what you do, but where you do it. Try to use as many different environments as possible to undertake different activities, with the obvious caveat of doing so within government guidelines. Indeed, diversity of spatial environments is critical if we are to avoid the lockdown time paradox. 

Liam Myles
Assistant Psychologist
Surrey and Borders Partnership 
NHS Foundation Trust

See also 'Imagining walking through a doorway increases forgetting', and read psychologist Ruth Ogden on time perception and Covid in The Conversation. Our March issue tackles spatial navigation in 'Lost', and our April issue will consider both cycles and 'time expansion experiences'.

References 

Horner, A. J., Bisby, J. A., Wang, A., Bogus, K., & Burgess, N. (2016). The role of spatial boundaries in shaping long-term event representations. Cognition, 154, 151-164. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2016.05.013

Kurby, C. A., & Zacks, J. M. (2008). Segmentation in the perception and memory of events. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(2), 72-79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2007.11.004

Radvansky, G. A. (2017). Event segmentation as a working memory process. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(2), 121–123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2017.01.002

Radvansky, G. A., Krawietz, S. A., & Tamplin, A. K. (2011). Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology, 64(8), 1632-1645. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2011.571267

Seel, S. V., Easton, A., McGregor, A., Buckley, M. G., & Eacott, M. J. (2019). Walking through doorways differentially affects recall and familiarity. British Journal of Psychology, 110(1), 173-184. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12343

Tulving, E. (2002). Episodic memory: From mind to brain. Annual review of psychology, 53(1), 1-25. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135114

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