Time Fracture – COVID, perception and the incomparable Doctor

(Radio Times)

In her review of the new multi-media West End experience Doctor Who: Time Fracture, Kate Wyver sets the scene: ‘A time fracture from a future explosion has caused a rip in the fabric of the universe, throwing time and space off-kilter. We’re wandering through the centuries trying to pick up clues’ (Guardian, 17 June 2021). To aficionados of the Doctor over the decades, it will come as no surprise to learn that s/he and the UNIT team (that now includes the audience) have hard-won answers for saving the universe. The show runs until April 2022. If only addressing the COVID pandemic was as easy, and we knew for sure when it would end. COVID has fractured time. Many have felt (me included) as Shakespeare wrote, ‘I wasted time, and now time has wasted me’ (Richard II, Ac V, Sc. V).

Time has fascinated philosophers and theologians, horologists and poets for centuries. It has become the subject of research by psychiatrists and sociologists during the pandemic. ‘How’, they have been asking, ‘have lockdown and a prolonged pandemic affected peoples’ perception of time?’ It is more than a theoretical issue. This all-too-real ‘time fracture’ has created new, painful, fissures in the sense and psyche of individuals and communities around the world. ‘Peace of mind’ and ‘bright hopes for the future’ are now for many as elusive as an answer to the present crisis.

When on 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of the new coronavirus COVID-19 a global ‘pandemic’, few understood the implications of their words and what lay ahead. Here in the UK, the introduction of a national lockdown on 23 March 2020 closed retail and hospitality sites and mandated a ‘stay-at-home’ order (where possible). 11.5 million UK workers were furloughed. Sixteen months later the way out seems almost as overgrown with complexities as it was in March 2020. Time, it seems, hangs heavy on the country, the horizon receding despite mass vaccination.

But come back to how COVID has affected our perception of time. Often cast in terms of seasonal shifts – semesters, breaks, holidays and festivals – time has, for many, been recast of late in terms of days in hospital or under quarantine. Remember how the spread of the virus was at the outset often described comparatively in terms of being ‘weeks ahead of’ or ‘behind’ other countries. Britain lived in the shadow of the outbreak in Italy.

(Harvard Business Review)

And notice how speech voices feeling. It has been common to hear in recent months, ‘It feels like we’ve been in lockdown for years’, or ‘Weeks just fly by’, or even ‘Days feel like an eternity’. Dr Ruth Ogden, Reader in Experimental Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University has studied this phenomenon closely. In the first lockdown, she asked interviewees to describe their sense of time and then cross-referenced this to their age and self-defined emotional state. 80% of the people spoke of some kind of distortion in their sense of time, with an even split between those who spoke of time passing more quickly and those who said it seemed slower than normal.

So, what should we make of this? First, the way people have experienced time during lockdown is related to age, stress, social interaction, and their lot (or burden) in life. Ogden’s research confirms that days pass quickly for the young, socially satisfied, busy and content, but hang heavy and slow on the elderly, dissatisfied, stressed and bored. From her second study (of the November 2020 lockdown), Ogden shows that irrespective of whether people perceived time as passing faster or slower than normal, 55% said they felt the first lockdown had been longer ago than eight months. Psychology and human nature confirm, it seems, the ‘relative’ nature of time!

Secondly, Professor Michael N. Shadlen, Principal Investigator at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, has written of the centrality of emotion to perception of time. The well-known adage, ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’, seems to be true! Lab-controlled psychological studies have confirmed we perceive time to pass faster when we undertake activities we enjoy and slower when we do something we dislike. Hence, as Dr. Kyla Rankin of the University of California’s Riverside Department of Psychology has demonstrated, students awaiting exam results perceive time passing more slowly if they are worried about their results. And, she points out, this can create a downward spiral, with slower time leaving more time to worry. Applied to time in lockdown, the stressed have and will experience more time distortion. The bereaved, unemployed or over-worked in hospitals, are all susceptible to the disturbing collateral of an unstable sense of time. Pain and pressure batter our time clock; or, as Anglo-Irish poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) says in his Four Quartets, ‘If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable.’ Caught in the nexus of pressure and exposure time can seem to ‘stand still’.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle’s (384-322 BCE) abiding influence extends to his view of time, which was, for him, perceived and defined ultimately in terms of change. That is, that a/our sense of time is inseparable from an experience of something changing. In other words, when little or nothing happens, it is hard to know time has passed. Aristotle reflects not only a classic view of time but one that accords with contemporary opinion; namely, that humans possess a kind of internal clock, or chronological pacemaker, that consciously or unconsciously sub-divides experience into timeframes. Analysts record pulses this pacemaker emits and correlate them with experience/s. The more pulses the longer, or more enriching, the experience. When something new occurs, dopamine is released by the brain which engages our memory. Hence, when we look back and calculate the passage of time, we are quite literally re-counting dopamine-induced events. No novelty, no dopamine, no encoded memories, and thus not much time to register.

In lockdown, though some have found new on-line fitness regimes and hobbies, many have necessarily lived without stimulus or novelty. Weeks and weekends, life and work, multiple Zooms and desperate texting, have blurred into one another. Monotony has blunted memory. Few dopamine pulses have been recorded. But time that has hung heavy and slow has also, paradoxically, flown by and, as Ogden’s research points out, seems to have extended peoples’ sense of the length of the pandemic. Why is this? Ogden proposes this complex response is partly a reaction to the novelty of the pandemic and partly an emotional response to the hitherto unimagined reality of mass infection and death. As a result, she argues, we can barely see back or past the mountainous experience the world has gone – and is going – through. Time is, it seems, not only relative but evaluative: we process, package, delete and remember time in all its pain- and joy-filled fullness.

A sense of ‘remoteness’ in time speaks to a metaphysical issue, which the American anthropologist Jane Guyer (b. 1947) termed ‘enforced presentism’: that is, the feeling of being stuck in the present, isolated from the past and future. It is another form of the experience we noted in T.S. Eliot’s poem above. Applied to the pandemic, we look back on our pre-lockdown lives with a nostalgia akin to treasured childhood memories, and we look to the future with less confidence than before that it is knowable, controllable and secure. Not knowing if or when the pandemic will pass has foreshortened the future. Planning for holidays, marriage or life after university has become far more complex, and risky. Reasonable expectations have become conditional hopes. We have become weary of imagining a ‘new normal’, except as a blindly optimistic denial of the pandemic per se.

Philosophers, songsters, psychologists, and poets have for centuries seen future hope as essential for human flourishing, especially in the midst of adversity. Likewise, a balanced perspective on past, present and future has been linked more recently to mental health. Loss of a future prospective, throws life into a maelstrom of aimless chaos that interrupts – or fractures – a sense of life’s natural ebb and flow, creating an uneasy, unhealthy, dislocation. We are, quite simply, ‘in limbo’.

The UK government’s four-step ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown (22 February 2021) has gone some way to addressing this sense of aimless, timeless ‘limbo’, with the prospect of a ‘Freedom Day’ (June 21) drawing the nation forward through its fears and frustrations of infection and restriction. Time was once again defined in days not deaths, vaccines not viruses. The delay to ‘Freedom Day’, fears for further spread of the Delta variant, the prospect of a bleak flu-ridden, COVID-stricken autumn and winter, cast a pall over the future for many living in Britain, or longing to enter or leave Britain (for work, family or holidays). ‘Normality’, even a new, fluid, restricted ‘new normality’ seems to lie far away on an infinite, globalised, horizon.

I want to end by making a connection in another direction. I have spent the last few years working on philosophical and theological ‘metanarratives’, those overarching stories that shape and determine life and the way we interpret it. To my mind, there are tantalizing parallels between present reality and historic Judeo-Christian ‘metanarratives’, specifically about time past, present and future. Jewish messianic metanarratives, out of which Christianity emerged, saw time divided into two ages, the present ‘age’ (where evil reigns) and a future ‘age’ (when a just God will right wrong). To Christians, Jesus’s life and death disrupted – or, perhaps, more accurately ‘fulfilled’ – this historic schema, and in the process created a third ‘age’, the present, which is a state of waiting for the final denouement of God’s original plan in Jesus’s ‘return’. Lest to the postmodern mind this all seem beyond imagining, it is! But it is part of the world’s great religious ‘myths’ that give shape and meaning, depth and resonance to the joys and pain of temporal existence.

Lockdown and social distancing are another kind of ‘third age’, caught between a past normality pre-pandemic and an unknown, almost unimaginable, post-pandemic new ‘future’. We wait. We hope. We ponder and wonder: the course of future events, like the pandemic itself, seemingly beyond our control. To a religious mind, surrender to the unknown and unimaginable is commonplace. It will look askance at idealisations of a post-corona future knowing humanity will inhabit that future as successfully and unsuccessfully it has the past. Promises of ‘building back better’ have the ring of fantasy, as if ‘heaven on earth’ were more likely than ‘heaven in heaven’. But lessons have been, and clearly are being learned, to prevent a recurrence of COVID, or another virus’s, crippling effects. If capitalism has been caught short and care for the world commended, who should really complain? Though time and times have led us to new places in recent months, a sense of the fragility of days and uncertainty of nights can have a healthy sobering effect. We treasure the moment more, perhaps. We count our days and thereby, perhaps, as the Book of Psalms puts it, ‘gain a heart of wisdom’ (Ps. 90. 12). Fractured time can be fruitful, as every earthbound, medical doctor knows.

Dr Alexander Garton, Research Associate