The Pandemic Time Warp : Short Wave The pandemic has upended every aspect of our lives, including the disorienting way many of us have been perceiving time. It might feel like a day drags on, while a week (or month!) just flies by. We talk with Dean Buonomano, a professor of neurobiology and psychology at UCLA, about his research into how the brain tells time. We'll also ask him what's behind this pandemic time warp.

The Pandemic Time Warp

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Let's start with a fun game, a game I've been playing every day, it feels like. And I'm not the only one.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Time now for the most important question of the morning.

SOFIA: Take this local news station Fox 8 News in Cleveland, Ohio.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What Day Is It? With Todd Meany.


TODD MEANY: It's Monday.


SOFIA: That settles it. It's Monday, another day in the pandemic time warp. Keeping track of time is something a lot of us are struggling with right now.

DEAN BUONOMANO: There was a meme running around with the calendars nowadays - instead of having Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, they just have day, day, day, day, day.

SOFIA: (Laughter). This is Dean Buono...

BUONOMANO: Buonomano.

SOFIA: Buonomano. OK. OK.

BUONOMANO: It means good hands because I come from a long line of pickpockets.

SOFIA: (Laughter) My family's Italian. That would mean, like, you can knead bread. That would be it.

BUONOMANO: (Laughter) I wish that was true.

SOFIA: Well, I'll tell you what, Dean. I've been trying to bake. And as a person who is a microbiologist, you would be startled in my inability to make yeast grow.

BUONOMANO: (Laughter).

SOFIA: Dean is a neurobiology and psychology professor at UCLA.

BUONOMANO: I've argued before that the brain is fundamentally a time machine in the sense that one of its main functions is really to predict the future. And predicting the future requires understanding when something will happen, not only what will happen.

SOFIA: Dean unfortunately can't predict when this pandemic will end. But he's got plenty to say about his research into how our brains tell time. So today on the show, we're going to talk about the time machine that is our brain and why, for so many of us right now, time feels strange in this moment. I'm Maddie Sofia, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE on Blursday (ph), May something or other, 2020. Pretty sure it's 2020.


SOFIA: OK, so before we jump into the time warp many of us are experiencing right now, let's start with some basics of how time works in the brain. There's not just one clock up there.

BUONOMANO: Exactly. People used to think, if you go way back to the phrenologists lists of 200 years ago, that maybe there was some part of your brain, some master circuit in your brain that was responsible for telling time. And we now understand that you have many clocks in your brain.

SOFIA: Right. I mean, I know there are different internal clocks responsible for different things, like the circadian clock that is connected kind of to a 24-hour cycle, right?

BUONOMANO: Absolutely. And that's a good example. So everybody has a circadian clock that tells us approximately when to eat, when to get up and when to go to sleep. It's also good to remember that you don't need a brain to have a circadian clock. Plants have circadian clocks. Cyanobacteria have circadian clocks.

SOFIA: Oh, that's true. I guess that's true.

BUONOMANO: I don't know about sour dough yeast. But sorry...

SOFIA: (Laughter). Dean, I like this. OK. So we have that, you know, circadian clock. What other types of clocks do we have?

BUONOMANO: So that clock, our circadian clock, does not have a minute hand, much less a second hand. But you need, of course, to tell time on the scale of seconds, right?

SOFIA: Right.

BUONOMANO: So you have circuits in your brain that will help you determine when the red light is going to change or help you figure out the tempo of music. Is that piece fast or slow? And those circuits have no idea about the hour of the day. So you have - some of your clocks have an hour hand but no second hand. And other clocks in your brain have second hands but no hour hands.

SOFIA: So, like, some - basically, what you're saying is some clocks are really good at delineating, like, different amounts of time.

BUONOMANO: Yes, absolutely - what we call temporal scales. Your brain has some circuits specialized for those short scales of time. Now, while we understand a lot about the biology of the circadian clocks, we don't understand as much about the neuroscience of these timers that operate on the time scale of seconds. But we do know now that the brain seems to tell time as a result of its neural activity in its neural circuits.

SOFIA: Right. OK. So that has something to do with - your team at UCLA works on, right? It's about this network of neurons in our brain. Can you talk to me a little bit about those different neurons and how that works?

BUONOMANO: Yeah. So one of the theories underlying how the brain tells time on the scale of seconds is that you have circuits of neurons that generate patterns. So as you know the brain is made up of neurons, and neurons communicate with each other. One neuron can activate the next, which can activate the next. So if you imagine this pattern of activity flowing through a network of neurons, you can imagine that would be one way to tell time. The first neuron tells a short period time. The second means it's two seconds. The third - it's a third second and so forth. Now, because time is so important for everything humans do, meaning this conversation - you're paying attention to the pauses in my speech, keeping track of how your arms move, of how your lips move and when you have to go eat and so forth - that it wouldn't make sense for the brain to have one clock because you're - always have to do many tasks that rely on time at once. So what we and others have proposed is that most circuits in your brain, in reality, can tell time if they need to.

SOFIA: Wow. I had no - this is - I mean, this is very cool. You know when you learn a science thing, and you're like, why haven't I thought about how that worked before?

BUONOMANO: Yeah, yeah, it happens all the time. That's the thing about science and the human brain. We don't stop and think of a lot of things. But when they're explained to us, we recognize their importance.

SOFIA: Yeah.


SOFIA: So let's talk about what's going on with the pandemic. Sometimes, it feels like we're experiencing the present as never-ending. Like, days are dragging on and on. Why is that? Do we know?

BUONOMANO: Yes. So I think that's correct. Anecdotally, I think a lot of people feel that the days are sort of long-lasting. Or as you put it, the present is sort of dilating or stretching and seems to be going by slowly. And that's what we'd call prospective time. So prospectively, they seem long because you're sort of a bit bored. So maybe you're looking at the clock a lot. So you have this feeling of time slowing down. And then people also report, well, but it seems at the same time, that the entire month maybe may have flown by. But that's looking backwards. So that's what we call retrospective time...

SOFIA: Sure.

BUONOMANO: ...Which is about memory.

SOFIA: Got you.

BUONOMANO: So retrospectively that seems to fly by because you don't have many mental landmarks or any mental crumbs. And because memory thrives on novelty, you don't store events that are sort of insignificant or not novel.

SOFIA: OK. So let me make sure I got this right 'cause I'm learning. So when I'm having the same boring day over and over, kind of - maybe I'm bingeing a TV show - you know, in the moment, they feel long. But because I haven't had these, like, emotionally rich or interesting experiences when I look back on this time, it's going to seem like it went really fast. Is that right?

BUONOMANO: Exactly. Exactly.

SOFIA: OK. So If you're a person who's struggling with kind of a distorted sense of time, like an endless day, is there anything people can do to kind of help themselves, you know, make it feel like it's a normal kind of day.

BUONOMANO: You know, always try to engage in novel activities. If you do the crossword puzzle every day, even that will become a bit predictable and non-novel. So if you - well, now I'm not going to do the crossword puzzle. I'm going to do a Sudoku puzzle. Well, then that is something new, something novel, something that your brain will have to work a bit more at and might store some novel experiences.

Trying to keep schedules is something that's often very helpful, whether it's your workout schedule or whether it's your reading, when it's - you allow yourself to do nothing. This, by the way, is the advice that many astronauts will give, too. So they they do emphasize the importance of having a tempo framework to do what they have to do, even if part of that temporal framework is, OK, this is the part of the day when I'm just going to do nothing. you.

SOFIA: So you're kind of scheduling it in, which I kind of like.

BUONOMANO: Yeah, yeah.

SOFIA: So do you think, you know, if, when we go back to, you know, what we call normal, some people are going to have a hard time with, like, the clockiness (ph) of our lives again? Like, is there going to be a moment when we need to reestablish this?

BUONOMANO: Yeah, the clockiness - yes, I think that was well put. I think that's a great question. And I suspect the answer to that is probably yes. Of course, it takes a bit of effort and readapting to transition back into a schedule. But humans - we humans are incredibly adaptive, as this is showing. And so we will. We'll go back. I think the interesting question is, what lessons can we learn from this to apply later? And if you figure that out, let me know, Maddie.

SOFIA: (Laughter) You got it. Well, I'll tell you what, Dean. I really appreciate this. This was super fun. Thank you so much for your time.

BUONOMANO: You're welcome.

SOFIA: Oh, for your time. Ha-ha. I didn't even know that...

BUONOMANO: There you go. It's everywhere.


SOFIA: This episode was produced by Abby Wendle and edited by Viet Le. Emily Vaughn checked the time facts. I'm Maddie Sofia. And you've been listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. See you tomorrow, nerds.


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