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Time Blindness during lockdown

University of Derby

Lockdown measures intended to control the spread of Covid-19 have significantly changed the way we live our lives. A substantial proportion of the UK workforce has been furloughed or required to work from home, schools and universities have been closed, and locations for socialising, recreation and exercise have been shut. Such significant changes to daily life have inevitably led to an increase in pandemic-related psychological side effects. Here, Dr William Van Gordon,Associate Professor of Contemplative Psychology, University of Derby looks at one of them – the concept of ‘time blindness’, whereby a person’s perception of time becomes distorted due to prolonged periods of lockdown – and discusses some strategies for reducing the impact.

Time Blindness and Brain Functioning

Evidence from neuroimaging studies indicates that a brain area located deep beneath the cerebral cortex, known as the basal ganglia – and in particular the putamen – is involved in acting as a pacemaker and internal clock. The role of the basal ganglia in this respect is also supported by studies demonstrating that individuals with degeneration in this area of the brain invariably perform poorly on time perception tasks.

However, other brain areas also influence our perception of time, such as those associated with attention and decision-making. Brain areas involved in emotion regulation, such as the limbic system, likewise assert an important influence over our perception of time, which might explain why some people report time passing more quickly when they experience positive emotions.

In the current pandemic climate, many people are experiencing heightened levels of stress or trauma, including feeling insecure about the future. Although we know that the future is uncertain, most of us like to think we at least have some control over it or that there will be continuity between the recent past, present, and short-term future. Relating to the future in this manner serves as an important temporal reference point that helps maintain our sense of time and allows us to orientate ourselves in the present. However, when we experience psychological stress and trauma, particularly when it relates to an uncertain future, the disorientation this causes can lead to increased activation in brain areas involved with both time perception and emotion processing, which can trigger an experience of time blindness.

Prolonged and continuous increased activation or over-activation of such brain areas can start to change how the brain processes neurological signals. This relates to the brain’s inherent capacity to reorganise neural networks – a principle known as brain plasticity. The process happens naturally with ageing, but is also influenced by factors such as learning a new skill or psychological stress. For example, research shows that trauma-related chronic stress can result in structural and hormonal changes in various brain areas, including those directly involved with time perception, such as the putamen, as well as areas such as the amygdala, caudate nucleus, prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

In the case of the hippocampus, chronic stress can impair the formation of new brain neurons leading to a reduction in hippocampal volume. These structural changes can alter how the hippocampus functions, potentially making an individual more prone to mood disturbances, as well as impacting other functions associated with keeping track of time, such as memory and attention.

Managing Time Blindness

In cases where a distorted time perception is a result of pandemic-related psychological stress or trauma caused by people having significant restrictions placed on their movements and face-to-face interactions, then in the event this stress becomes a chronic condition, it could lead to structural changes in some of the brain areas mentioned above. However, it is important to note that there are compensatory factors that can prevent this from happening, such as an individual’s ability to accept and become acclimatised to future uncertainty.

Indeed, by modifying our behaviour and making a concerted effort to respond differently to uncertain situations, it is possible to avoid the over-activation of brain areas associated with time perception. This has a lot to do with changing the way we relate to the future by understanding that it is inherently uncertain. In fact, the future is a somewhat artificial concept and does not truly exist because by the time it arrives, it is always the present. Therefore, techniques such as mindfulness, that help us to be aware of and live in the present moment, can help to dissipate psychological tension that may have accumulated due to us firmly holding onto how we would like the future to be.

Another key skill in this context is psychological flexibility, which relates to how easily we can adapt to change. People more able to accommodate new situations, including accepting uncertainty, are less likely to trigger a stress response during the pandemic. In turn, being less stressed and less reliant on a given future can help regulate neural activity in brain areas associated with time perception.

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