Time to Lose

By Tess Solomon

On July 16, 1962, French geologist Michel Siffre began an expedition in an Alpine glacier about 70 kilometres from Nice. He would stay underground for two months in total isolation, an effort to achieve circumstances extrapolatable to those experienced in submarines, space, or fall-out bunkers. This, he felt, was urgent in the context of the Space Race and the Cold War. It was a cognitive experiment to determine what would happen if a human lived without outside indicators of time.

The results were astonishing. With the help of a team at the entrance of the cave, Siffre recorded when he went to sleep, woke up, and ate. He also performed a test every time he called up. ‘I had to count from 1 to 120, at the rate of one digit per second,’ Siffre writes. That counting test proved incredibly valuable: in the end, ‘It took me five minutes to count to 120. In other words, I psychologically experienced five real minutes as though they were two.’ This effect carried over into longer periods of time. When his team told him it was September 14, the day he was supposed to ascend, Siffre was shocked. Based on his own calculations, he believed it was August 20. “My psychological time had compressed by a factor of two,” he writes.

Since the beginning of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the strangeness of the way time feels has been widely acknowledged. A survey conducted by Dr Ruth S. Ogden of Liverpool John Moores University in July 2020 reported that 80% of people were experiencing a distortion of the way they perceived time during lockdowns. Though the pandemic has underscored existing race, class, and geographical inequities in many ways, the fact that time seems to be passing abnormally transcends those categories.

In May 2020, Arielle Pardes wrote about this phenomenon for Wired. During lockdown, she observes that ‘something has happened to time. Its march onward is no longer measured in days, but in confirmed cases of Covid-19 and number of deaths.’ She continues with an illustration that had been poignantly relevant at the time: ‘Milan is no longer five hours ahead of New York, but several weeks ahead.’

But, as she acknowledges, there is something more fundamentally, helplessly psychological at work. When New Jersey’s Twitter humorously posted the day of the week in Caps Lock for a while, or when Fox 8 news in Cleveland had a ten-second segment called ‘What day is it?’ with fanfare leading up to a newscaster announcing the day of the week, so many of us understood the need for some handholding when it came to positioning ourselves in the new realities of time’s passage.

Siffre attributes the disconnect he recognised between mathematical time and psychological time to memory. Underground, in the dark, in an unchanging, undifferentiated environment, ‘Your memory does not capture the time,’ he writes. ‘You forget. After one or two days, you don’t remember what you have done a day or two before. The only things that change are when you wake up and when you go to bed. Besides that, it’s entirely black. It’s like one long day.’ It is a peculiarly elegant observation. As poet David Rokeah articulated it the following year, in 1963: “The things between me / and time: / My daily forgetfulness.” To the perceiving subject, nothing happens: time does not pass, if you do not remember what filled it.

In the past year, many of us recognise the results of Siffre’s demonstration: that time the mathematical fact, the fourth dimension, can morph into something psychologically contingent. Even if we are not below ground, even if we have the sun and schedules and other people to keep us on track, the inner workings of memory have come between us and time the way they did for Siffre.

In his bestselling book on memory Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, published in 2011, Joshua Foer introduces the concept of ‘chronological landmarks’ that are crucial to making time feel like it is passing. ‘We remember events by positioning them in time relative to other events,’ he explains. ‘We accumulate life experiences by integrating them into a web of other chronological memories. The denser the web, the denser the experience of time.’ Without markers, memory begins to deteriorate, ceasing to differentiate between befores and afters. Time becomes one long, indistinguishable moment, and we begin to resemble Siffre in September, believing it is August.

In his book, Foer interviews a man named Ed Cooke, a memory competition champion who has achieved the level of Grand Master, and the founder of Memrise, an online platform that uses memory techniques to help people learn. In 2011, Cooke described his efforts to expand his subjective time ‘so that it feels like I live longer.’ In order to do so, he was working to achieve precisely the opposite of what Siffre had: he aimed to fill his time with events, memorable moments and chronological landmarks, to make himself ‘more aware of time’s passage.’

Dr Ken Norman, who runs the Princeton Computational Memory Lab and is the chair of the neuroscience department, put the idea of chronological landmarks into more technical terms, citing researcher Jeffrey Zacks at Washington University in St. Louis. The important concept to understand, he told me when we spoke in January, is the idea of event boundaries. An event is a period of time where we are using a particular scaffolding of pre-existing knowledge to understand what's going on around us. Event boundaries happen when one framework changes over to another. The number of event boundaries between two moments is ‘the heuristic you use to assess how “far ago” something happened,’ said Dr Norman.

These boundaries also trigger what he calls a ‘hippocampus snapshot,’ a record — saved in your memory —of what has happened over the duration of an event. As such, these boundaries are incredibly important for attaching moments, ideas, words, or images to particular contexts. Dr Norman explained that ‘event boundaries push you further and further away from the event, time-wise, but they also create the capacity for you to return to that prior context in memory.’

In a normal day before the pandemic, said Dr Norman, you would get coffee, go to class, see a friend, ride your bike, work out at the gym. Because of the boundaries between these events, the day would have felt long, and because those boundaries would have created snapshots, it would have felt full. Now, because those pieces of a normal day are — for many — confined to a home if not to a single room, we have ceased to have significant event boundaries, and our minds have stopped taking effective snapshots. Our psychological time has diminished, and we remember less of it.

In a blog post from March 2020, entitled ‘How to expand subjective time during the lockdown’, Cooke maintains his commitment to making himself more aware of time’s passage, even in these abnormal circumstances. His post helps clarify why effective chronological landmarks can lately be so hard to come by. ‘Time is mostly conceived through spatial metaphors,’ Cooke explains, giving the examples of an event squeezed into a schedule, memories described as distant, calendars populated by colourful blocks of responsibilities. ‘We remember things primarily by where they happen, and only indirectly by when.’

The centrality of space to perception of time helps explain why the ‘snapshots’ at the end of an event are key to securing it in memory. In Dr Norman’s lab, ‘context’ refers to the physical and mental circumstances present at the moment any piece of information is learned. When your mind experiences an event boundary, your brain saves the information that is happening during the event by attaching it to the moment in which you experienced it: you remember something by where you were when you studied it, and also whether you were hungry, cold, caffeinated, or sitting next to someone you care about. The snapshots consolidate memories of an event, gluing what has been experienced and learned in its duration to the context in which it took place.

This process is beneficial in terms of memory because, when you try to recall something, the information doesn’t exist in a vacuum: you can access it by any one of a series of cues, of which spatial configuration seems to be, for humans, the most central. Dr Norman has demonstrated, in fact, that people actively remember things by reinstating their prior contexts. This process is what happens when you want to remember who was at a gathering: you mentally move around the room because you have captured the context, not memorised the guest list. Memory champions like Cooke use unique spatial associations to remember decks of cards, lists of numbers, or other randomised variables by placing them in a fascinating construct called a memory palace.

The pitfall of contextual memory, however, is that if a contextual element gets associated with too many items, Dr Norman said, ‘it ends up being a poor cue for any one of them.’ One way to demonstrate this idea is with the Brown-Peterson paradigm. When Dr Norman teaches this lesson, he asks students to remember three types of cars at a time: ‘Pontiac Lexus Mazda,’ he flashes on the screen. Then, he says, count down backwards by sevens from a random number, to remove the triplet from your working memory. Now, recall the triplet.

At the first trial, the task is easy. But several trials later — 'Subaru Honda Volvo’; ‘Tesla Buick Nissan’; ‘Volkswagen Pontiac Kia’ – the task becomes quite difficult. The key is that the context has stayed the same: you are at the same desk, next to the same people, at the same temperature, and while you might have stopped fidgeting with the desk somewhere along the way, you have too many car-cues associated with your environment. If you change the category—to a triplet of birds, say — you will have a much better memory of them. Bird-cues are new.

The over-association of cues, within our very long events, adds another layer to the weirdness that is staying at home. It becomes harder and harder to remember what we have done in particular spaces. Though circumstances might alter slightly from one Zoom to the next, ‘not all context changes are created equal,’ said Dr Norman. Without real, robust event boundaries to shift our contexts, our cues for memory become increasingly overburdened and ineffective.

In his blog post, Cooke describes the overloading of context during extended periods at home as a lack of ‘spatial hooks’ for memories, and he looks at this as a problem to be solved. He continues to try to expand his time during quarantine with an elaborate three-step technique that includes assigning particular activities to particular spaces within his apartment, which he further differentiates with lighting, decoration, orientation, background music, and scent. His kitchen is Paris in the morning and Berlin at lunchtime. He does some work at a desk in Croatia, some at another desk in Italy.

‘By combining perceptual, bodily and imaginative techniques, the featureless open scape of a day at home can assume all the spatial trappings of an adventure out around a city,’ he claims, ‘with all the benefits of fun, memorability and distinctiveness, but none of the incidental opportunities for contracting COVID-19.’

Cooke’s solutions feel a bit like psychological legerdemain, but Dr Norman, who has known him for over a decade, tells me, ‘I’m sure it works.’ When I wondered why he had not implemented it, he smiled and said, ‘I just lack the energy. Just because you have academic knowledge or scientific insight that’s relevant to something doesn’t mean that you put it into practice.’

Those of us who have not systematised a response to our constricted space — like Cooke has — have grown used to the miasmic goo our surroundings have become. So much more of our time is spent in the same places. We recognise that we overload our contextual cues so that they drip with associations. We know that minutes, hours, and months blend and shape shift. (Have I said that already? Have I said that to you, or to someone else?)

The first short story Joan Didion was pleased with, she writes in ‘Telling Stories’, was the one in which she taught herself ‘how to make narrative tension out of nothing more than the juxtaposition of the past and present.’ The job of an artist telling a story is to convincingly create event boundaries out of narrative fabric, explained Dr Norman. Time will always be something mathematical and external, yet its shape, now more than ever, has become vast and alien. Maybe we have found our peace with that. As this incomprehensible reality stretches behind and before us, though, it is worth asking how we can make beginnings and ends for ourselves. How can we create sticky memories, differentiate and populate our spaces and times in this era? How can we take care to juxtapose our pasts and presents to consider, as they unfold in all of their tension, the stories we are living?

TESS SOLOMON studies English and Cognitive Science at Princeton. Late to the bread-making game, she’s there now.

Art by Maisie Honey