The Nuance

This Is Why You Can’t Remember Yesterday

Science explains why time is so disorienting and mind-numbing these days

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readApr 23, 2020

--

Illustration: Kieran Blakey

If the thousands of tweets referencing the movie Groundhog Day are any indication, those Americans under stay-at-home directives are feeling the dull weight of monotony pressing down on their shoulders. Variety may be the spice of life, but it’s also the substance of memory. Without novel experiences to demarcate one day or week from the next, the shape of time can bend and stretch in disorienting ways.

“When we look back at those days and weeks where not much happened — where it’s the same every day — not much is stored in memory and time feels [as though it has] passed very quickly,” says Marc Wittmann, a research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany.

Wittmann has written extensively about “felt time.” He says that while monotony can compress the brain’s perception of time over long periods, boredom can slow down the perception of time’s passage “in the here and now” — meaning minutes or hours seem to drag on and on.

Along with boredom, anxiousness can also make time appear to slow to a snail’s pace, he says. While the overlapping Covid-19-related threats of sickness, economic hardship, and social instability are enough to make anyone feel uneasy, experts who study social isolation say that too little face-to-face interaction can be a potent promoter of anxiety in and of itself.

Without novel experiences to demarcate one day or week from the next, the shape of time can bend and stretch in disorienting ways.

Paranoia, missing routines, and disorientation

“Human beings by their nature are social animals, and when you deprive them of social interaction, that has massive repercussions,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California.

Much of Kupers’ work has examined the psychological effects of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. “The situation of a prisoner in solitary confinement is qualitatively…

--

--

Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a frequent contributor at TIME, the New York Times, and other media orgs. I write mostly about health and science. I like long walks and the Grateful Dead.