science of us

What Is ‘Time Blindness’ and Do You Have It?

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I’m not in therapy right now, but my twin sister is, and sometimes I ask her for insights. Your twin should be able to be your therapy plus-one, I say. The other day, she missed an appointment for no discernible reason. She had been doing some law school work on her computer, making lunch, just puttering around, and she looked at the time and her session had passed. “My therapist said it was ‘time blindness,’” she told me later. “We’re all time blind.” I thought, Oh yes, that’s right. Time blind, just like being unable to distinguish between red or blue.

I’m self-isolating 3,000 miles away from my twin, who is staying with our parents in Southern California. I’m in New York. We FaceTime every day, but I haven’t seen her in person since Christmas. I know how much time has officially passed. A whole season: the last time I hugged her I wore a big winter coat. But it feels much longer, like we unknowingly entered into a new century since then, another era. When I finally see her again we will speak a different language than the one we used to. Maybe we won’t even look like each other any more. Other times I swear I heard her laugh just the other day.

Time blindness is a term coined by doctors who treat people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Dr. Ari Tuckman, a Pennsylvania-based psychologist who specializes in ADHD, said adults typically develop an innate awareness of time and an ability to track its passing. Some people have what he calls a “harder,” or sharper time awareness: they know when they’ve been out for lunch too long, or when something hasn’t been in the oven for long enough. Others have a much softer one; they can miss appointments and trains, or play a game for hours and not realize they haven’t eaten dinner. At the severe end of the spectrum, toward the soft end, is time blindness, which can profoundly impact someone’s life, if they can’t ever keep deadlines or make social events. People with ADHD are often more time-blind than others.

On top of our individual time awareness, Tuckman says, context plays a role: Sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, being drunk, anything that might impact how we process the world, can make us feel more time-blind. “And context has wildly changed for us all at this moment in history,” he says. Without the usual time-marker cues we might use to divide up our days — the school bus arriving, standing on a crowded train platform, the line at the coffee shop, weekend nights spent at restaurants with friends — we’re swimming in a sea of sameness. “It’s like driving through a haze where they’re just not as many distinct landmarks,” he tells me. Even if before all this, you might’ve called yourself a stickler for time, you’re likely having a hard time sticking. You’re throwing darts into a viscous, slippery time jelly.

Grief is one of the biggest causes of time blindness, according to Tuckman. What am I mourning? People who are gone. Places I used to go. Seeing my sister’s face, for real. Holding onto time is a skill of your mind, like doing math, and sadness sucks up its computing strength. It’s why time goes faster when I talk to her, when I’m not so sad, even though I want it to feel longer.

Tuckman said it might be nice for more people to understand time blindness, if only to help normalize this feeling that clocks have stopped working, or they’ve stopped being applicable to our lives. Trains and appointments were our context clues, yes, but so were other people. He says talking to them, even while physically apart, can be a way to keep time. Loved ones are good clocks.

What Is ‘Time Blindness’ and Do You Have It?