Only two weeks into England’s third national lockdown, it’s easy to feel nostalgic for the first one. In March, it was spring, the idea of going for a “government-sanctioned walk” was still funny and everyone thought things would probably be back to normal by summer. The second lockdown lasted about month, and it flew by. But this one: this feels different.
It could be that January is notoriously the worst month of the year, or that there’s no real end date in sight, or just the collective grief everyone is feeling this time around. Whatever it is, living through three lockdowns has been shown to have skewed some people’s perception of time – and these past two weeks have felt like months.
I spoke to Dr Luke Jones, a psychology lecturer at the University of Manchester with a research interest in time perception, to find out why this lockdown feels like one of those ever-extending cartoon hallways.
VICE: Hi, Dr Luke. The first couple of weeks under lockdown have felt so much longer this time around. Is it normal to feel like that?
Luke Jones: Yeah, definitely. This time around we’re anticipating things getting back to normal. There’s a vaccine on the horizon, but that’s why it’s worse, as we’re not quite sure how long it’s going to last – but at the same time there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. When you’re anticipating some positive event, it always takes longer to get there than if you’re dreading something awful happening.
Why is that?
What you’re referring to is passage of time judgment. That’s the feeling of how quickly time seems to pass, rather than how long something lasted. We know that a busy or fun interval will pass more quickly than one that is empty or repetitive or boring. So if you’re just generally having a busy week, that week will pass more quickly. In lockdown, people aren’t getting their social interaction, and most people are doing nothing at the moment. 'There’s no difference between week and weekend, so the passage of time is really slow because you’re just thinking about what time it is. You’re clock watching, and there’s nothing to distract you away from the time.
How do we usually process time?
There’s our perception of duration, so how long an event lasted for, which people are very good at estimating, prospectively or retrospectively. If I was going to ask you how long ago it was that I replied to your email, you wouldn’t know exactly, but you’d be able to make a judgment. That judgment is based on how many events have happened since you got that email from me.
So why was the first lockdown so different?
There are a lot of differences between the lockdowns. The first lockdown was novel. Although there was loads of anxiety, it was also a bit like, ‘Oh, this is exciting.’ It was in the spring, too, so the weather was a lot better, which improves everybody’s mood. At the time, we had no idea that it was going to go on for as long as it did. Now, we don’t have any of that.
Are there any other reasons that people might be feeling disoriented?
We also have a feeling of temporal orientation, so that’s asking, ‘When am I?’ There’s no distinction between the week and weekends, and things that would usually happen in the year didn’t happen this time around. Halloween didn’t happen, Bonfire Night didn’t happen, Christmas was a lot more subdued, and you probably didn’t go on holiday last summer. All of these things that usually mark where you are in time just haven’t happened. So the fact that it’s January feels a bit surreal, and it doesn’t make any sense to us.
Would having a solid end date to lockdown make time feel like it's going faster?
On the one hand, you’d be anticipating something and looking forward to something good that’s going to happen, just like a child waiting for Christmas – and it always takes forever for Christmas to come. But on the other hand, having an end date would make things feel more pleasant, so time could pass more quickly.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.