Pigeonholes is a collaborative inter-sectional column from the Arts & Culture and Science sections, exploring issues across academic boundaries. This week in the Pigeonholes column: space, time, and COVID-19.

For many of us, the start of the pandemic in March might feel like a lifetime ago. After seven homebound months, memories are becoming more difficult to create, store, and access. Time has transformed from a proverbial river to a tangled delta — moments arranged non-linearly in sequences that sometimes go by too fast, or else proceed at glacial, mind-numbing pace.

I heard from a friend of mine, who could comment on this phenomenon, by email: James Ralph, a third-year student majoring in philosophy and women and gender studies. They suggested that their source of solace in the midst of this delta has taken the form of an Instagram account.

“It’s become a bit of a diary for me,” Ralph reflected on their posted photos. “Often when I think about the past week, I can’t remember how I was feeling and when, so it’s been helpful to document that in a semiprivate space.”

When scrolling through their posts, it soon becomes obvious that Ralph has participated in their fair share of common ‘quarantine activities’ — similar to many others Instagram pages, theirs boasts photos of freshly baked bread and lit candles. 

Also like many others, there’s a lingering sentiment of being fearful of our unprecedented time. “I think someone should catch me,” they write in one post. “I feel like I’m floating in the air, floating and unable to anchor onto anything solid for very long.”

Worsened memory

In an email to The Varsity, researchers at U of T’s Memory & Perception Lab gave reasoning for Ralph’s worsened memory. One researcher, Melissa Meade, looks at how the brain combines multisensory information to create rich memories of events.

“For most people, the pandemic has been a relatively uneventful time. Staying at home and continually engaging in a limited set of activities has made it feel like the days are blending together, and this makes it really difficult to differentiate specific days and events in memory,” Meade explained. Meade’s findings further enforced the importance of having an outlet to keep track of feelings and events during COVID-19. 

In an email to The Varsity, Aedan Li, a graduate student and researcher at the Memory & Perception Lab, added: “We might falsely recall that we spoke to a friend yesterday about a new Netflix show, when in actuality we might have spoken to the friend last week about course work (and we might have instead read an article online about the new Netflix show).” 

Meade and Li’s research agrees with a July questionnaire posed by Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) that examined how the passage of time was distorted during the United Kingdom’s lockdown period.

According to LJMU, previous research showed that performance of familiar tasks, or tasks with a low cognitive load — tasks we use less memory to complete — resulted in the perception that time was passing slower than usual. 

The study explained that this spare cognitive capacity to focus attention on the passing of time, as observed during boredom, could result in this sensation. In contrast, increased task complexity, and heightened intellectual requirements tasks may contribute to the sensation of time passing quickly. 

The study’s takeaway? Our perception of the rate time is passing at is proportional to the attention we can give to it. 

Poor mental health 

In the same study, LJMU reported that negative emotions cause a slower passage of time. In a July Centre for Addiction and Mental Health study, 50 per cent of surveyed Canadians reported worsening mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Moreover, 44 per cent of participants reported feeling worried, and 41 per cent of participants attested to feeling anxious — impacts that can negatively impact our memory post-pandemic, according to Meade.

“When attention is diverted away from the present moment and instead focused on the things we’re anxious about, which right now might be a loved one contracting covid, the loss of a job, or just difficulty coping with this incredibly abnormal situation, our memory for the events we experience is worse than it would be under normal circumstances,” Meade wrote.

Furthermore, Meade noted that “highly emotional events (for example, finding out a loved one passed away) are typically remembered in vivid detail for many years.” This concept, referred to as ‘flashbulb’ memories, contrasts a normal COVID-19 experience. “Anyone that experiences a highly emotional event during this time will likely remember that particular event extremely well,” Meade wrote.

An era of uncertainty 

Dr. Sam Maglio, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at UTSC and the Rotman School of Management, wrote an article for The Washington Post about two weeks after the March COVID-19 lockdown began. The piece explains how the uncertainty of living in a pandemic can make time feel prolonged. 

“Lately, we’re all in the second, unsure condition,” Maglio wrote. “The best guess as to how long life as we know it will be put on hiatus looks to be ‘indefinitely.’ It’s like Charlie Brown’s football, only instead of yanking it away, Lucy lets him kick it but then moves the goal posts back. And frustration tacked onto uncertainty compounds how badly time drags.”

A remedy for this uncertainty? Believe it or not, it’s trying something new, proposes Bryan Hong, a graduate student at the Memory & Perception Lab. 

“Introducing new events into your routine where possible, whether it’s attempting a new recipe or taking a walk in a neighbourhood you’ve never been to before, can help improve our ability to situate ourselves in time,” the researcher wrote to The Varsity. “The positive mood associated with these events also [has] an additional benefit for our overall mental well-being!”

As COVID-19 cases rise this winter, we may have to settle in for another lockdown. At the very least, we will have fewer occasions to socialize safely outdoors. In either case we can expect mental health to worsen — and with it, our grasp on the passage of time.

As we settle in for an indoor hibernation and the nights grow darker and longer, the days might start to merge together. Developing habits to prevent this from happening will go a long way. Whether that means lighting candles like Ralph, or taking a walk like Hong suggested, we owe it to ourselves to find comfort in a newfound time.

And if that comfort is given from an Instagram account? In an era generating so many thoughts, a picture’s worth a thousand words.