Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Our Experience of Time in the Time of Coronavirus Lockdown

Heather Dyke

The change from our lives BC (before coronavirus) to the lockdown most of us around the world are currently experiencing was dramatic and sudden. Many began working from home, often while also juggling the demands of home-schooling their children. Others went from working to not working at all. Yet others, essential workers, found their jobs transformed: now inherently risky, and potentially life-threatening. Whatever the change, life under lockdown has a markedly different tempo from life BC. One effect of this appears to be a warping of people’s experience of time.

Examples abound: a study in Italy showed that “The lockdown induced a significant increased difficulty to keep track of time, with people experiencing confusion about what day of the week, of the month, and what time of the day it was.” (Cellini et al. 2020) Jonathan Freedland, writing in The Guardian, cites a friend who commented that “the weeks seem to pass surprisingly quickly, but the days last an eternity”. (Freedland 2020) It would be too simplistic to say that time seems to have slowed down, as some have reported experiencing during life-threatening experiences. Instead, time seems to have both slowed down and speeded up, to have expanded, to have become undifferentiated. What is going on here? Surely time can’t really speed up, or slow down, let alone both at once!

The explanation of this phenomenon must concern our subjective experience of time, and not the nature of time itself. There is a debate in the philosophy of time over whether time really passes or flows. Neither side in this debate would be able to accommodate apparent fluctuations in the rate of flow of time itself. If time itself doesn’t flow, then any apparent changes in our experience of temporal passage must concern the nature of our experience. But if the passage of time is real and independent of us, how can it fluctuate as a result of a change in the nature of our experiences?

Let’s distinguish two features of our temporal experience. First, we have the impression of time passing as we live through it. Much of the time we don’t think about it, but sometimes we notice that it seems to pass more quickly, or more slowly. A day filled with boredom can drag on, while a day filled with many and varied experiences can pass in a flash. Second, we look back on recent lived experience and make judgements about how much time seems to have passed. Sometimes, a period of time can seem to have lasted longer than, or less than, its actual duration. A holiday filled with lots of new and exciting experiences can seem, in retrospect, to have lasted longer than its actual fortnight. And sometimes we are surprised on realising that a whole year in a new job has already flown by.

This second feature of temporal experience is affected by the attention we pay to the details of our lives, and the associated memories we lay down. During a holiday, and during novel experiences generally, we pay lots of attention to what’s going on around us, and correspondingly, our memories are packed with detail and information. Then, when we reflect on how much time seems to have passed over a given interval, it can seem longer than it actually was because of the density of data in our memories. Alternatively, if life follows a repetitive routine, we can effectively operate on autopilot, and pay very little attention to the details. Correspondingly, our memories are relatively impoverished. At times like this, when we reflect on how much time seems to have passed over a given interval, it can seem shorter than it actually was, because our memories contain relatively little data. Recent work in neuroscience supports the view that time in memory is connected to the content of the remembered experiences, rather than being coded as something separate from those experiences. (Offord 2020)

Lockdown has combined these two features of temporal experience in unfamiliar ways. This has had different effects depending on how it has altered the shape of people’s lives. For those now working from home, while also home-schooling their children (two full time jobs!), life is suddenly much busier. The effect on the lived experience of time is that it seems to be passing much more quickly. Also, with the threat of pandemic as a backdrop to this change, this is a novel experience. People will attend to the details of their lives, where previously they may have operated more on autopilot. They will consequently be laying down dense, data-packed memories, so the length of time in which we have been in lockdown seems to have been much longer than it actually is. Hence, time is passing more quickly, and more of it seems to have passed than actually has.

For others, work has stopped, so a busy life has been replaced by a vast expanse of time with little to fill it. The effect of this change on the lived experience of time will be the opposite. Now time drags. Each day seems the same as the last, so people find themselves unable to keep track of what day it is. Life has had its familiar markers removed, causing time to seem undifferentiated. But this is still a novel experience, with the pandemic threat in the background. It came about abruptly, and has required a massive readjustment. These people too are alert and paying attention to the details of their lives so more time seems to have passed than actually has passed. The days will seem to drag, while the weeks fly by.

It may well be some time before our lives return to anything like their shape and form BC. They may never do so. Perhaps one take-home message from this experience is to recognise the importance of attending to the details to keep our lives full, and maximise our experience of the time we have.


Cellini, Nicola, et al. 2020. ‘Changes in sleep pattern, sense of time, and digital media use during COVID-19 lockdown in Italy’, PsyArXiv preprints.

Freedland, Jonathan, 2020. ‘Adjust your clocks: lockdown is bending time completely out of shape’, The Guardian, 24 April 2020.

Offord, Catherine, 2020. ‘How Time is Encoded in Memories’, The Scientist Magazine, 1 May 2020.

About The Author

Heather Dyke

Heather Dyke is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Otago. She is the author of Metaphysics and the Representational Fallacy (Routledge, 2008) and co-editor with Adrian Bar...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!