No Time Like the Present

You don’t know what day it is, do you? Robert Burke Warren digs into ‘the Oddball Effect’ and fascinating brain data that may help explain why.

Robert Burke Warren | Longreads | April 2020 | 5 minutes (1,174 words)

What day is it?

In pre-pandemic days, I said those words, or heard them, most often when traveling. Now, I say and hear them (or read them) every day, while social distancing at home with my wife and son. Like Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse Five, I am “unstuck in time.” Surely, many days have passed, but no, it’s been only one or two. A week seems a month, a month a season. Last week? No. Yesterday.

I know I’m not alone. “March was the shittiest year ever,” goes the meme.

Whereas once we lamented “Where does the time go?” meaning it’s racing too fast, now we move through denser space, longer minutes filled with yesterdays for which we pine, and tomorrows we either fear, or fixate on with rapacious longing. Or both. Routines — job, school, shopping, socializing — are disrupted, crippled, or gone. In this strange, new “now,” we fill space with worry and/or desperate hope, visiting a conjured future and/or hazy yesterdays, all out of our control. Unstuck in time. “The past is never dead,” Faulkner famously wrote. “It’s not even past.” Too true, Bill.

And we don’t know what day it is.

***

I found myself wondering why both traveling and living through a pandemic alter time perception. Are they not absolute opposites? One is all about moving, embracing, broadening horizons, the other about contracting, protecting, putting up fences. Yet both appear to warp our inner clocks.

The thinking goes: the oddball effect occurs when your brain processes more new information than usual, moment-to-moment.

Because the Coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented and, believe it or not, only a few months old, studies are not yet available on how and why our reactions to it distort our time perception. But studies exist regarding the effects of travel on our temporal sense. For that disorienting feeling of stretched time — when, say, you return from a weeklong trip and it seems you’ve been gone far longer — scientists have coined the term “the oddball effect.” I wager this also applies to what we’re now experiencing.

The thinking goes: the oddball effect occurs when your brain processes more new information than usual, moment-to-moment. As when you’re traveling, and, it turns out, as when quarantined in 2020. To wit: the nonstop onslaught of news to digest, protocols to learn, terrain to assess, customs to memorize: gloves, masks — no masks, yes masks — six feet of distance, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, never shake someone’s hand ever again. How, exactly, to shop? What’s safe to eat? Where and how to get it? We must accommodate these instances of daily increased information — all in the “life or death” category — in minds already monitoring rampant democracy assaults and assessing information sources. The result of all that intake is the illusion of more time passing.


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In a 2004 study, Dartmouth scientists curious about the oddball effect placed participants before a computer screen and repeatedly flashed identical images of a shoe, intercut with one image of a flower. Even though each image of the shoe, and the one flower image — the “oddball” — were onscreen the same amount of time, observers believed the flower was there longer. The flower — the sudden change — was novel information; viewers were accustomed to the shoe. Processing something new expanded their perception of viewing time.

Scientists hypothesize feelings of vulnerability can play a part in the oddball effect, too. As when traveling, in pandemic days we must be vigilant. Even sequestered, or when briefly venturing out of our caves, our mammalian machinery reacts to actual or perceived threat by spiking the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, one of the “fight or flight” chemicals, and firing up the brain’s amygdala — believed to be our emotional, memory, and decision-making center. The pulse quickens, pupils dilate, and we register more data, which, again, feels uncannily like more time, especially upon recall. Evolution has wired us thus — senses heightened for hunting, fighting off invaders, outwitting predators, staying healthy.

***

Finally, it occurs to me, we are on a kind of trip together, after all. So despite travel and quarantine seeming polar opposites, perhaps the oddball effect is to be expected. We’re all covering new ground, albeit within ourselves, in real time, every day. And even though we are apart, we realize we are, quite literally, measurably, in this together. As connected as we’ve ever been as a species, moving as one, while actually separate. It’s both a Buddhist’s and a physicist’s chance to say, “See? I told you so. We are one.” And as in traveling, this stretched time offers opportunities — yes, stress, danger, insecurity, and fear are opportunities — to get to know one another better, as people, couples, families, and communities.

From where I sit, I see remarkable kindness, and latch onto it like a buoy. Even as we’re uncertain where and how this trip ends, and even as we receive bad directions from unreliable and/or moronic advisors and so-called authority figures, we nevertheless witness inspiring acts of bravery and compassion. Thousands of New Yorkers, in a custom learned from the devastated Italians, lean out their windows and gather on roofs and stoops en masse every night at 7 PM — without fail — to applaud, cheer, and make music in honor of healthcare workers. It’s a historic din.

Crafters are sending homemade masks to needy people they’ll never meet; companies are donating materials, restaurants giving away food, musicians filling the internet with song; many, many folks are stepping up. All these actions of our fellow travelers do not diminish the horror and loss that blight our exceptionally long-seeming days, but they do shine a little light on this dark, twisting, often terrifying path.

The very idea of social distancing, and the widespread, if imperfect employment of it (even the recent, truly insane protests against it), should give us all pause. As my 22-year-old son mentioned, after being unceremoniously sent home from his senior year at college: “This is the first time in human history so many people — worldwide — have cared so much about life. In past pandemics, measures were taken, but industry — the economy — was never shut down. Back then, they just let people die.”

Perhaps Nature has gifted us with the oddball effect in part to give us ample time — longer minutes and hours — to process and remember in detail these unprecedented times.

Thus far, the United States has fallen in line with other countries, and saved many, many lives. The curve, indeed, appears to be flattening. Even though, at this writing, a handful of Republican Governors, aided and abetted by Trump, are defying public health officials and planning to relax social distancing, most citizens and politicians remain committed to safety over commerce.

So clearly, this is not the moment to spend undue time patting each other on the back. But it is worth taking a minute or two to notice we, as a species, a web of wildly diverse planetary cultures, have come to a point where historic numbers have acknowledged we are, in fact, traveling together, in the same boat. We are looking out for one another, masking up, checking in. Perhaps Nature has gifted us with the oddball effect in part to give us ample time — longer minutes and hours — to process and remember in detail these unprecedented times. Not just the darkness and the threats, but also the shelter, and the persistent light.

* * *

Robert Burke Warren is a writer-performer-musician, author of novel Perfectly Broken and coming-of-age song cycle Redheaded Friend. He lives in Phoenicia, NY.

 

Editor: Sari Botton