Our journalist Ella Rhodes considers the cyclical nature of life, both the more literal and the metaphorical.

The first moment that Dr Ruth Ogden (Liverpool John Moores University) truly realised the flexibility of the passing of time from one moment to the next, she tells me, ‘was the car crash. It ended my youthful sense of immortality and was the starting point for a new phase, realising that I had to look after myself. I had the same sense of the cyclical nature of life after the birth of my first child – a near instantaneous sensation that everything before this moment was “the past”, an old me and an old version of my life. Everything going forward would be different.’

Ogden’s accident sparked her academic interest in how emotion affects time perception. Events which cause emotion affect time perception, she tells me, ‘but they also mark out cycles in our life. Cycles are made of representations of time. Significant changes to our lives often help to mark out new forms of cycles.’

We are rhythmic, cyclical creatures, living in a rhythmic, cyclical world. Our lives and bodies work in these cycles; some biological, visceral and real, some invented. Our brains can trick us into believing that these cycles are largely predictable, a feeling bolstered by our inherent relationship with the natural world – the cycling of the seasons, days, weeks and months. Whether real or not, when these cycles break down, change, or prematurely end, the results can be startling.

Life cycles
That car crash led Ruth Ogden to experience the uncanny, nauseating feeling of time slowing down. And now she reminds me of a very different situation where time seems to drag: Mondays.

Although time moves inexorably forward, as humans we don’t always seem to experience it this way. Many things, Ogden told me, can affect how quickly or slowly we feel time is passing. ‘We know that objectively we’ve got clock time, we know time passes constantly… it doesn’t change, a day is always the same length. But when you ask people about their experience of time – whether that’s very long periods of time like days, months and years, or tiny little bits of time like seconds and minutes – it seems to be the complete opposite of this. Depending on how we feel and what we’re doing that will determine how we feel time is passing – whether it’s passing quickly or slowly.’

One idea is that this phenomenon provides us with some sort of perceptual gain. ‘You’re seeing things in a slowed down way, your cognition is occurring in a different way and this provides you with some sort of gain for survival. One of the reasons we think that’s the case is we only see a relationship between sympathetic nervous system activity and distortions to time for very, very negatively-arousing stimulation [lab studies use photographic stimuli of mutilated bodies, for example]. It would be totally useless if we had a time perception system that just waxed and waned all the time… but perhaps what we do need is a time perception system that in the most severe of situations, the most critical situations, adapts to give us some sort of advantage over prey or threat.’

As well as arousal, information processing can affect how quickly we feel time passes. ‘If you have variance in arousal and variance in information processing across the different days of the week, then this is going to influence your ability to judge that week in a consistent manner,’ Ogden says. ‘And we don’t schedule our weeks in a way that enables us to have a consistent experience. Monday is always very busy, a lot of information processing going on, so then when we look back at Monday we think “how can it only be Tuesday, I did so much yesterday?” If your weeks are very busy they feel long; if your weekend feels very relaxing and there’s not a lot of information processing going on, you might have this unfortunate feeling that it was very short, because you didn’t do very much.’

Ogden adds that her own research on the Covid-19 lockdown experience found that the disruption to our normal routines and cycles, but also our emotions, influenced how we experience short cycles such as the day and week. ‘Only a fifth of people experienced the passing of the days and weeks as “normal” during lockdown. Forty per cent felt like the days and weeks were passing more quickly than normal and 40 per cent experienced the opposite; the days and weeks passing more slowly than normal. The days and weeks passing more slowly than normal was associated with increasing, greater dissatisfaction with social interactions, reduced task load and increased stress.’

Cyclical vs linear
Could cyclical thinking be useful in organising our lives? In a 2014 paper Professor Leona Tam (University of Technology, Sydney) and Professor Utpal Dholakia (Rice University) asked whether people could be encouraged to save more money by thinking in terms of cycles.

In their first study participants were asked their opinion on ‘cyclical’ or ‘linear’ orientation methods developed by life coaches. According to the cyclical method, thinking in terms of cycles could encourage people to expect the future to be similar to the present, and to form routines and habits – if you perform an action in the current cycle you may be more likely to repeat it in the next cycle. According to the linear method, once events are in the past they are over, and completing tasks requires thinking about the future and setting goals and benchmarks. Participants in the cycle condition subsequently made slightly higher estimates of how much money they would save in the following month, compared to those in the linear condition.

In a second study Tam and Dholakia gave students instructions on how to save money from either a linear or cyclical point of view. In the cyclical condition they were told to focus on the amount of money they would like to save now, ask themselves if they had saved enough in the previous paycheque cycle, and if they hadn’t to make up for it with the current paycheque cycle. Those in the linear condition were told to focus on their savings goals for the future rather than how much they had saved in the past. Participants in the cyclical condition made estimates of how much they would save over the next fortnight which were 70 per cent higher than those in the linear condition, and actually ended up saving 82 per cent more. From a third and final study, Tam and Dholakia concluded that thinking about savings in a cyclical way produced a mindset of lower optimism for the future and higher levels of implementation planning, compared with a linear savings approach.

Change to our daily and weekly cycles, it seems, influences how fast or slow we feel these periods; and thinking cyclically can influence how we feel about and organise our lives. And changes to our biological cycles can have particularly profound impacts.

When a cycle changes
Around the age of 45, the menstrual cycles of people who menstruate start to change. The perimenopause describes the point at which periods become increasingly irregular until they cease entirely – known as the menopause. The perimenopause lasts four to six years, yet many feel unprepared when the time comes. This isn’t too surprising – there has been very little research on this time of life, compared with other areas of health in those who menstruate, such as pregnancy.

Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology and Obstetrics and Gynecology Pauline Maki (University of Illinois at Chicago) tells me there are fundamental questions yet to be answered about this crucial time. ‘Most women don’t know when they are transitioning, they don’t think that their period changing is necessarily them entering the menopause. It’s so important because 100 per cent of women who live into late life will go through it. This is a universal event, and yet there’s so much about it we don’t know.’

One symptom of the perimenopause is what’s often called ‘brain fog’ – where people may become more forgetful and have problems with their cognitive processing speed. Maki said the best way to look at problems with memory and other cognitive functions is to use standardised neuropsychological tests and longitudinal study designs – testing the same individuals in the pre-menopausal stage, during the perimenopause and post-menopause. ‘When you follow the same woman using these neuropsychological tests over time, what you see is that she begins to experience a decrease in her memory even just before the onset of the peri-menopause. On average you see a decrease in memory in the early perimenopause, it worsens as women continue to the late menopausal transition, which is when she’s skipping periods. The good news is that for most women it bounces back in the post menopause. Our work is to identify for which women it might not bounce back.’

Those in the perimenopausal phase may still get pregnant and may need to take an oral contraceptive to prevent this. Maki tells me that while there have been many clinical trials of hormone therapy and their effects on cognition post-menopause, there has been little to explore this in perimenopausal individuals, and there have been no clinical trials of hormonal contraceptives and their cognitive impacts on perimenopausal people. This issue is further complicated by one of Maki’s major discoveries – that hot flushes, or flashes, may contribute to memory problems. ‘Our work suggests a linear relationship, a direct correlation, between the number of hot flashes we can measure (based on sweating on the surface of the skin) and memory problems… and there are very strong relationships between hot flashes and brain function when we do brain scans.’

Maki calls it a perfect storm… ‘we know oestrogen is good for memory, because if you remove a woman’s ovaries her memory declines. We know that hot flashes appear to be at least disruptive for sleep, and we know that poor sleep contributes to memory problems. So there are a lot of direct and indirect ways that perimenopausal hormone changes influence memory.’ There’s also, according to a recent systematic review by Maki and colleagues, ‘a window of vulnerability for women developing depressive symptoms. It’s pretty striking, the estimates are that 56 per cent of women with a history of depression will have a recurrence during the perimenopause. When we’re depressed we’re not necessarily thinking so clearly or paying attention as well and so the depressive symptoms can also complicate the cognitive changes at perimenopause.’

Maki said that while there is a temptation to ‘throw oestrogen’ at the problems experienced during the perimenopause, this can be a far too simplistic approach. Other cyclical events can contribute to depression, for example. ‘It’s not all hormonally driven, some of it is societally driven. For women who had children early in life they could be going off to university, and oftentimes relationships end at that time in a woman’s life. She’s at the most stressful time of her career, with women’s peak earnings at that point of her career and into her early 50s. She’s coming to grips with being older. There are a lot of life stressors and imagine if she’s also sleeping poorly… that’s a perfect mix for depressive symptoms.’

What if a cycle ends too soon?
When a cycle that we expect to play out in this predictable way ends abruptly, without any warning, the results can be hugely traumatic. We see life itself as a cycle – parents expect to die before their children, and we have all heard comparisons between the helplessness of infants and people in their later years. As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, ‘Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’

The trauma of abrupt endings can be seen in particularly stark detail in the stories of families whose loved ones have gone missing. Andy Owen, author of the 2017 book All Soldiers Run Away: Alano’s War: the Story of a British Deserter, wrote in an Aeon article that ‘Taoist thinkers emphasise the cycle of the seasons, and the wider cycles that the seasons fit into, as central to many key concepts and ways of understanding the world, challenging the linear notion of our stories’ arc that puts so much stock on the ending.’ When people go missing, Owen wrote, it’s as if their stories are cut off mid-sentence. In a fantastic Guardian article on the work Gene and Sandy Ralston have been doing for around 20 years to recover victims of drowning across North America, Professor emeritus Pauline Boss (University of Minnesota), said that the human brain could not let go until there was evidence of ‘transformation from life to death’. ‘You need to see that the person is no longer breathing… Or you need to see the bones.’

This is complex and ambiguous loss, also seen in the loss of a baby early in pregnancy, through miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy. That’s a largely understudied area. A recent study, led by Clinical Fellow and specialist registrar Dr Jessica Farren (Imperial College London), explored the impact of miscarriage before 12 weeks and ectopic pregnancy loss in 650 women. The researchers found that a month after losing a baby 29 per cent of women experienced post-traumatic stress; 24 per cent experienced anxiety; and 11 per cent suffered with depression. These impacts persisted: nine months later, 18 per cent were experiencing post-traumatic stress, 17 per cent were suffering moderate to severe anxiety and 6 per cent were experiencing depression.

Trapped in a cycle
Many applied psychologists spend their working lives seeking to break cycles, of a more metaphorical nature. People can become trapped in a cycle over time. Addiction, over-eating, and our emotions associated with those behaviours, can lead us to struggle to break free. And other life circumstances can be usefully thought of as a cycle, including homelessness.

Dr Emma Williamson (South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust) has spent the last eight years working as Principal Clinical Psychologist for the Psychology in Hostels Project in Lambeth. This work has involved the creation of psychologically-informed environments in accommodation for homeless people – ensuring environments are welcoming and that all staff are well-versed in psychology and the complexity of trauma.

She said homelessness, and particularly chronic homelessness, could be thought of as cyclical in a number of ways. ‘I think one cycle could describe the origins and elements of homelessness. Being homeless in itself is about being unstably housed, and that cycle of different locations and the rootlessness of individuals in themselves. I also think there are cycles between trauma and homelessness in terms of the origins that feed and maintain homelessness – there’s a big focus more recently on being more aware of the trauma that perpetuates and maintains homelessness.’

Williamson tells me that there has been an increasing focus in recent years on the role of trauma in leading to homelessness, and thus exposing a person to more trauma as a result. She pointed to a cycle originally created by Rose Schmidt and colleagues to describe women’s homelessness, but said their work could be applied to any person who becomes homeless. This model pays particular attention to the poverty and social exclusion that homeless people have often experienced in their past. ‘I think we really need to recognise the impact of social exclusion, poverty and inequality in our society as a key driving force… I would say the cycle starts there. People may have lower levels of education and face economic barriers, and this can lead to poorer mental and physical health and disabilities. Higher levels of social inequality and inequity lead to greater levels of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and we know that the more ACEs individuals have the poorer their health outcomes.’

This experience of poverty and social exclusion can lead younger people entering the care system, and older people being unable to gain employment or becoming trapped in lower-paid work. ‘Family breakdowns, people coping with poverty or distress, within families where there might be substance abuse moves onto people struggling to find or sustain accommodation, people might sofa surf or be raised in care then struggle after leaving to find and sustain accommodation.’

Schmidt’s model also highlights ineffective service provision as feeding into the cycle of homelessness – with services often being unable to respond to people in the right way. Some are not trauma-informed, may be fragmented, or demand much from individuals who tend to be leading chaotic lifestyles and may have mental health and substance abuse problems.  

‘That places people at greater risk of further mental health difficulties and further trauma because of their unstable housing provision and the difficulties they had early in life. That means they can withdraw from services, they might not trust or build relationships very easily because of some of their past experiences like being raised in care. People might be using drugs, alcohol or medication to cope, and then people are at more risk of finding themselves in vulnerable situations – women or men entering prostitution for example to find accommodation or staying in abusive relationships because of limited choice.’

All of these factors put people in situations where they may face further trauma and in turn further poverty and social exclusion, leading them to cope by using drugs and alcohol. ‘That’s a vicious cycle of ever-increasing need and complexity that really traps people in, people find relationships really hard to manage, may become more and more chaotic, then services can’t engage them in a way they can make use of because they’re up all night and sleeping in the day, for example… they become further and further excluded and stuck in this cycle. The longer you’re homeless the more entrenched that can become.’

What tomorrow brings
For some people there may be comfort and hope in the cyclical nature of life. As the great Frank Sinatra once sang, ‘There isn’t much that I have learned, through all my foolish years, except that life keeps runnin’ in cycles, first there’s laughter, then those tears… Life is like the seasons, after winter comes the spring, so I’ll keep this smile awhile, and see what tomorrow brings.’ [And see box, ‘The four seasons’.]
Our brains love to find patterns in the chaos of the world. Perhaps a feeling that we live in a world of predictable cycles brings some form of order to an otherwise random and unpredictable lifespan. We know some cycles are doomed to end from the beginning, some we never expect to start. Cycles are sure to continue to break down, end or trap us within them, with surprising effects on our lives as people and as psychologists. We would love to hear your examples of cycles, and what they mean to you.

Email me on [email protected], or connect on Twitter @psychmag.

Box: The four seasons

The cycle of the four seasons appears to truly, and universally, affect our emotions. A letter published in Nature Human Behaviour by Park et al. examined music streaming habits on Spotify across 2016. Their random sample of one million individual users, comprising 765 million online music plays across 51 countries, revealed some startling daily patterns.

People tended to opt for relaxing music later at night with more energetic music being played throughout the day. Younger people and those in Latin America listened, on average, to more intense and emotionally arousing music throughout the day.

There were also patterns in seasonal preferences throughout the year which varied depending on a user’s distance from the equator. People globally tended to listen to more emotionally arousing music in the warmer months and calmer music in the winter – apart from during the run-up to Christmas or other festivals such as Carnival on 7 February. But this variation in seasonal preferences decreases the closer someone lives to the equator. The authors write that seasonal variations in affective music choices ‘are more strongly influenced by seasonal activities that depend on temperature, weather, and indoor and outdoor daylight than by seasonal changes in the timing of sleep relative to the dawn signal that synchronizes the circadian pacemaker’.

Box - The news cycle

The news cycle has shifted dramatically in recent decades: thanks to Twitter and news organisations’ desire for clicks and advertising revenue, we can now follow notable events in real time through many different viewpoints. But what effect has this shift had on the human attention span?

Dr Philipp Lorenz-Spreen (Max Planck Institute for Human Development) and his colleagues looked at websites, including Twitter, Reddit and Wikipedia, to longitudinally assess how long a particular topic captured and maintained collective attention. For example on Twitter the authors looked at hashtags between 2013 and 2016 and found that in 2013 hashtags stayed in Twitter’s top 50 for 17.5 hours on average, decreasing to 11.9 hours in 2016. ‘Our modelling suggests that the accelerating ups and downs of popular content are driven by increasing production and consumption of content, resulting in a more rapid exhaustion of limited attention resources. In the interplay with competition for novelty, this causes growing turnover rates and individual topics receiving shorter intervals of collective attention.’

Illustration: Nick Taylor

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber