Layers of Time: Pandemic Time Distortion

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry. ~ Mary Oliver

The history of time is layered.

The oldest sundial was created in 1500 BCE in China. But they give an irregular and uncertain reading of time, because of the tilt of the Earth over the course of the year and the latitude where the sundial sits. Time was very fluid, then, almost as much as it was pre-sundial.

It wasn’t until Galileo discovered the properties of the pendulum in 1602, that pendulum-driven clocks were engineered 50 years later, that accurate timekeeping became possible. His insight was that the pendulum’s oscillation was determined not by its weight or the distance from the center point of its swing, but solely by the length of the pendulum. And they are resistant to changes in the pendulum’s period once set in motion.

Pendulum clocks — like Grandfather’s clocks — were the most accurate timepieces for almost 300 years.

Grandfather Clock

In the modern era, however, the most accurate clocks are atomic clocks, which are so accurate that they only lose 1 second in 100 million years. But that doesn’t really pin time down.

Modern physics has brought back a new uncertainty to time. One aspect of Einstein’s theory of relativity is that time is influenced by gravity, so an atomic clock at the top of Mount Everest runs infinitesimally faster than one at sea level, where gravity is stronger. Atomic clocks are so accurate you can measure the height of mountains in this way.

These observations only prove what we all have sensed intuitively: time is not passing at a constant pace. It’s all relative, and not just in the Einsteinian way. And the greatest factor in relativity is not the physics of timekeeping, but the fluidity of our human time sense.

In each of these eras — pre-Galileo, post-Galileo, and post-Einstein — our thinking about time has changed. And now, following the pandemic, our thinking about time, and our sense of time itself, have been just as drastically altered.

A recent research study shows that so-called ‘temporal disintegration’ was greatly amplified during the pandemic, where people experienced distortions in perceived time:

Continuity between past experiences, present life and future hopes is critical to one's well-being, and disruption of that synergy presents mental health challenges," said corresponding author E. Alison Holman, UCI professor of nursing. "We were able to measure this in a nationally representative sample of Americans as they were experiencing a protracted collective trauma, which has never been done before. This study is the first to document the prevalence and early predictors of these time distortions.

So this is another slice through time, our shifting and messy perceptions of time. In the case of the pandemic, our sense of time was distorted, with some people feeling time was slowed while others thought time was racing. In either case, it had become distorted.

The philosopher Josef Pieper made a distinction between horizontal and vertical time. The former is the everyday experience of linear clock time: five workdays and two days of leisure time, for example, and in general, proceeding at a consistent pace (although weekends might be experienced as passing too fast and the workweek too long).

But Pieper also wrote of vertical time, which Jenny Odell says runs “at right angles to work” in her new book, Saving Time. Her argument is that to find true leisure, you need to step out of the horizontal time dimension, in which leisure exists only to refresh us to return to work.

I believe there are two sorts of time distortion, a positive and a negative experience. The positive sensation of being transported out of the everyday hustle — while walking in the shade at a park,  meditating, moved by great music, gaining a sense of fullness when operating in a flow state, or even while sorting socks — can be deeply spiritual and transcendent. And later, when we come down to Earth, we may feel renewed, reborn even, more than just rested.

However, the pandemic-induced temporal disintegration is the evil twin of vertical time. We are shaken out of the normalcy of horizontal time into a shifting, vertiginous verticality, without the sense of wonder or awe of positive time shifting. Instead of finding renewal and a sense of greater connection, we are fearful and unrested, battered by trauma and suffering a time concussion.

I confess that I experienced temporal distortion in the months and years following the arrival of Covid and the lockdowns that followed. Like many others, I have found it difficult to regain that sense of balance of the ‘before times’ when so much has changed. It is only in the past six months that I have felt the vertigo retreat.

This exploration of time — in this, part of a series on that topic — is in part a healing process, where I discuss the layers of time to help me — and others — better understand the way our time sense has been knocked off kilter. (In my next essay, I will explore the layers of time across the scale of the organization.)

Still, many of the layers of my time sense have been altered, perhaps permanently.

How strong emotions — such as fear, grief, and trauma — influence our sense of time is not fully understood. Ed Miyawaki, a Harvard neurologist says,

there is not a single place in the brain involved in timekeeping, but several. One place near the optic nerve tracks time, for example, which is how people sense time of day by daylight. Dopamine-rich networks in the brain teach us to anticipate rewards, and the cerebellum, which allows us to time our movements, also has its own kind of clock. There's an emotional clock, there's a memory clock, there are all these kinds of clocks.

But there is no master clock in the brain: we are constantly shuttling from one sort of time to another, driven by our desires, our habits, and our fears.

Miyawaki believes, after long research, that our sense of time is principally informed by factors outside the brain, outside ourselves

And since we dedicate so much of our waking lives to work, our relationship to the organization and its many layers of time may be a major influence on each individual’s time sense, and a means of amplifying or dampening the time distortions we’ve experienced.

Even when we are not in the midst of a pandemic, the organization's time layers push at us, and we are pushing back at them, and the resulting tangle impacts our work, our lives, and the culture of our organizations.

And just as in the brain, there is no master clock in the organization, in the social framework of a business, or even in a small team. It’s relative at every scale.

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