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Why Lockdown Makes Time Feel Sooo Weird, According To A Montreal Expert

Is this a bad thing? Is there anything we can do about it?
Associate Editor
Why Lockdown Makes Time Feel Sooo Weird, According To A Montreal Expert

If you've found it hard to make sense of time during the COVID-19 pandemic, you wouldn't be alone. The phenomenon of time feeling SO weird in lockdown is not just a Montreal thing — it's occurring around the world as people grapple with long periods of blandness and isolation. The proof is in the countless memes and GIFs depicting mass confusion over what day, month and even year it is. 

So why does it feel like it's still March 2020 yet also like 1,000 years have passed since then? What's up with the collective sense of time dysmorphia? What can we do about it? We asked Professor Eric Lewis, who researches philosophy and music at McGill University, for some insight. 

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Why does time feel so weird right now?

As someone who studies the philosophy of improvised music — tempo, cadence, rhythm and all that timing-based jazz — Prof. Lewis explained that the pandemic has revealed something that's always true: "the elastic notion of time."

"Many of the markers we use to keep track of the passage of time have disappeared. So our ability to cognitively know how much duration has taken place is problematized."

He gave the example of a normal workday in which one would go to work, sit in an office, take a lunch break and go home.

"You kind of always know what time it is based on the sequence of your activities, right?" he said.

"Many of us had that schedule disrupted so we've lost this way of marking the passage of time through the rhythms of our day."

Prof. Lewis compared it to listening to music.

"It's the rhythm of the music that lets you know where you are in the progression of the song. If you lose the rhythm, you're losing your sense of duration," he said.

As a result, he said many of us are experiencing individual days as seeming very long while simultaneously wondering, "Where did that month go?" — as if time is both slowing down and speeding up.

Is this good or bad (or neither)?

Prof. Lewis said this phenomenon could explain some of our "personal pains" and anxieties around the pandemic.

The pandemic has affected everyone differently — some people's routines were not interrupted much, while others faced radical disruptions.

This means our personal timelines are no longer in sync with those of friends and family.

We're no longer meeting co-workers at the water cooler, sharing lunch breaks with them or commuting home on the same bus. Classmates may be watching recorded lectures at different times.

"When we all operate in our own temporality, it's literally harder to coordinate with others," Prof. Lewis said.

"There isn't this shared sense of progressing through time in a similar way and that really grounds... our sense of community and our affinity for others. The sense that we're marching forward together is important."

Are there any upsides?

However, it's not all doom and gloom. There's a positive side.

According to Prof. Lewis, if you can't meet someone in person to talk with them at a local coffee shop and share a joke or go on a date, suddenly it doesn't really matter where someone is.

"Normally you'd say, 'Oh are you going to be in Paris in the spring? Maybe we could get together and have a gig.' Now it's like ... let's just do it [online]," he said.

Because our local sense of time is so disjointed, he said it doesn't feel that different to interact with someone who's in a different time zone or on a different continent.

He used the example of free online festivals, which more people with shared interests around the world can access.

"It's easier to bridge big temporal gaps," he said.

"We're losing our sense of really local community... but you may be gaining a much more dispersed community."

Is there anything we can do — or is it Groundhog Day until vaccination time?

For starters, Prof. Lewis said we have not yet adjusted to new rhythms that would help us figure out our sense of duration.

So, it stands to reason that creating a quarantine routine with markers throughout the day — for instance, going for walks when you'd normally commute — might be helpful.

The biggest takeaway from talking to Prof. Lewis has to do with how we connect online.

His motto is "embrace latency" — in other words, embrace that annoying lag or delay that happens when you're communicating virtually.

Why in the heck would you want to do that?

Think of it as one of Zoom's character traits. If you ignore it or try to pretend it's not there, you aren't going to be satisfied with the interaction.

"Zoom and digital platforms suggest their own ways of being creative and they're not simply replications of traditional [encounters]. If you treat them like that, you're going to be disappointed," said Prof. Lewis.

Prof. Lewis has been jamming with his band on Zoom every day since March, and he said they've developed ways of playing together that are specific to the medium of Zoom — ways that treat latency like a "new member of our band."

He said they've had to give up playing in coordinated rhythm because everyone's hearing different things at different times.

This leads to more personal freedom in their melodies, he said, because they can't really adapt to spontaneous changes another band member might make.

Yet, it works. They still manage to make music together — albeit music that sounds different than it would if they were playing in-person in a garage.

"You need to treat time... as a co-improviser," he said.

Just like music, COVID-19 time has latency. There are delays in cause and effect, said Prof. Lewis — whether it's the virus' incubation period impacting case counts or policies that won't see results for weeks.

Embracing latency allows us to be flexible. To improvise. To expect that time will not flow as it normally would.

It forces us to accept that even if we're a step behind or a step ahead of others, we're still marching forward in time with them.

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