Participants in a questionnaire-based study at the University of Aberdeen, UK, made a relatively large number of errors when asked to reconstruct the timing of major events that occurred in 2021, providing new insights into how lockdowns due to Covid-19 have affected perceptions of time.

Daria Pawlak and Arash Sahraie of the University of Aberdeen present these findings in the article in the journal PLOS ONE. Remembering when past events occurred becomes more difficult as more time passes.

In addition, people’s activities and emotions may influence their perception of the passage of time. Social isolation resulting from lockdowns due to Covid-19 significantly affected people’s activities and emotions, and previous research has shown that the pandemic caused distortions in people’s perception of time. Inspired by that earlier research and clinical reports that patients have become less able to report accurate times of their medical conditions, Pawlak and Sahraie decided to deepen their understanding of the pandemic’s impact on time perception.

In May 2022, the researchers conducted an online survey in which they asked 277 participants to indicate the year in which several major recent events occurred, such as when the Brexit was finalized or when Meghan Markle joined the British royal family. Participants also completed standard assessments for factors related to mental health, including levels of boredom, depression and resilience. As expected, participants’ memory for events that occurred more in the past was less accurate. However, their perception of when events occurred in 2021, one year prior to the survey, was just as inaccurate compared to events that occurred three or four years earlier. In other words, many participants had difficulty remembering the time when events coinciding with lockdowns due to Covid-19 occurred.

In addition, participants who made more errors in the temporal reconstruction of events were also more likely to show higher levels of depression, anxiety, and physical mental demands during the pandemic, but had less resilience. Boredom was not significantly associated with accuracy of temporal reconstruction. These findings are similar to those previously reported for prison inmates. The authors add, “Our paper reports altered times during the pandemic. The restrictions imposed during the pandemic depleted our time horizon, affecting our perception of the timing of events. We can remember that events happened, we just do not remember when,” the authors comment.

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