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This is the way the world ends/With brain fog and a boring apocalypse.
If we're never getting out of this pandemic, we need to talk about time.
Welcome to The Experiment, where we’re having a blue Christmas without you. Ken Whalen learns why his neighbor mowed his lawn every day, and Democratic pollster Stefan Hankin is back with the next installment in his popular series, “Dems are the f*cking worst, part 2.” And I jump to the time part of the space-time continuum and look at how the pandemic has changed it.
As always, we offer things to do (get a happiness tune-up), read (Dana Milbank on the surprising data about Biden’s media coverage), watch (Halle Berry’s Bruised), and listen to (“Vintage” by Blu DeTigre).
But first, did you hear about NASA’s latest mission?
Last month, SpaceX launched NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, or DART. In less than a year, DART will, it’s hoped, slam into the moon of a near-Earth asteroid to see if its orbit changes. They have other ideas to protect Earth from asteroidal Armageddon, including nukes and mucking with an asteroid’s gravity by flying really close to it. Sadly, sending Ben Affleck into space is not currently on the table.
“Asteroids have been hitting the Earth for billions of years,” stated NASA. “Now, we begin to make it stop.”
“Avenge the dinosaurs!!” tweeted Elon Musk.
I gotta be honest with you. I’ve been staring at that Elon Musk tweet for long minutes. Elon’s so perfect in his joie de imbécillité, helicoptering his rocket ship to rally earthlings in adoration of his role not just in preventing a future catastrophe but in avenging all dinosaur kind. Elon Musk is not just the richest person in the world. He also serves as his own court jester.
A tenet of quantum physics is the existence of alternative timelines. I wonder if I might apply for a transfer to another, because given infinite timelines, as my friends E and F have pointed out, this is Dumbest Timeline America. The joke about 2022 being 2020, too, became old as soon as it was told, regenerating as try-hard movie references. 2020: 2 Fast 2 Furious, or 2022: I Still Know You Didn’t Get Vaccinated Last Summer. Not only are we in Dumbest Timeline America, we seem to have gotten stuck in 2020.
The onset of the Omicron variant, combined with the U.S. death toll cresting 800,000, has rapidly spread infections of the Herewegoagain virus. Some schools are going remote. Again. Back-to-office plans are getting rewritten, holiday travel plans canceled. The hardest part is not just contemplating a new wave of isolation and danger but a growing awareness that there will never be a post pandemic and that we’re stuck here forever.
Part of the problem, says my friend Lilly Kofler, who trained as a behavioral scientist, is that “human brains inherently don’t understand the way that time is calculated in modern life.” We’re hardwired to mark our days by the sun coming up and down and by the routines that follow from that cycle. “These inherently physical experiences gave you the feeling of passing of time, and the sense of how long things should take didn't exist for a long time.”
Isolation messes with how we perceive time. In 1961, a French geologist stayed two months in an underground glacier. Undergoing tests after his return to the surface, his team asked him to count out 120 seconds. It took him five minutes. A 1993 NASA experiment had a sociologist live in an underground cavern for a little over a year. When he returned, he thought only seven months had passed. The reason? Without the natural routine of life, human life evolves into a 48-hour cycle, awake for 36, asleep for 12.
“What I can tell you about the boredom and isolation on our overall mental health and then that downstream impact on our perception of time is that it's not good,” says Kofler.
Not good as in 80% of those under a UK quarantine found that their perception of time had been distorted. Time slowed down for those in isolation. Because of the minute demands of our stomachs and employers, we still ate at regular times, still clocked in, albeit remotely, at the appointed hour.
But the weeks took forever, and the months even longer, which is how it seems like it’s still 2020 and 2019 seems like it was 20 years ago. This is, of course, an inversion of how we used to experience time: slow days, fast years. Compounding the effects of isolation were the absences of the traditional tentpoles that prop up our perceptions of a year’s structure: New Year’s Eve parties, graduations, weddings, football games.
And now, thanks to omicron, our dumb brains are starting to get the hint that what happens every day is normal.
Danger also changes our experience with time. One scientist who’d felt time slow during a near-death experience sought a scientific explanation. His conclusion was that when you’re in danger your brain captures everything. In effect, your brain is slowing down your perception like a nube college student taking notes, writing down every word because anything might be on the test.
Pre-vaccines, going to the grocery store felt like a near-death experience. We were constantly on guard to maintain social distancing and hated with a clear, true passion people who refused to wear masks. Want to know what that did to your brain?
“And then you get tired and then you're anxious and you're isolated and you're doing a million jobs. The cognitive load is enormous,” says Kofler. “And people complained about brain fog.”
Though meteorologically similar to the brain cloud that Tom Hanks was diagnosed with in Joe Versus the Volcano, brain fog is different in one important aspect: It’s real. In fact, Harvard Medical School is using “brain fog” as a colloquial catch-all for the cognitive symptoms of COVID-19, but I’m referring to brain fog as a symptom of persistently high levels of anxiety.
And now, thanks to omicron, thanks to the unvaccinated, thanks to public health directives being misconstrued as tyranny, we’re stuck here, throttling up on the amygdala while our dumb brains are stuck in neutral, unable to get unstuck and clear of the danger.
“The actual experience of living through something like this is terrifying,” says Kofler. “And then you're exhausted at being terrified. And then you fight back from it, and ultimately it's a boring apocalypse.”
A boring apocalypse is a phrase coined in a 2018 scientific paper about humanity’s “susceptibility to existential hazards.” It’s not the meteor that’ll kill you but social media’s ability to weaponize our vulnerabilities and prevent a rational response to an airborne virus.
“We argue that far from being peripheral footnotes to their more direct and immediately terminal counterparts, these ‘Boring Apocalypses’ may well prove to be the more endemic and problematic, dragging down and undercutting short-term successes in mitigating more spectacular risks,” they write.
So here we are, stuck in a boring apocalypse. Luckily, I know the way out.
We can’t control time, but we can control how we experience time. Set an alarm, get a routine, and treat your time like the last $5 in your bank account — spend it wisely. Don’t just get tipsy with your wife while watching Star Trek: Discovery. Get tipsy with your wife while watching Star Trek: Discovery mindfully.
And unless you are my mother who is recovering from extremely minor surgery and relegated to couch duty for the holidays, move. In her research, Kofler found that walking improved our awareness of the passage of time. Our brains aren’t hardwired to perceive time, but neither are our bodies designed to sit still.
I’ll leave you with this, because we won’t be together until New Year’s Eve when I see how I did on last year’s predictions and make new ones for 2022: Have yourself a merry little Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate. We only get so many holidays, and being grateful for the ones we get helps us appreciate that we all might be unmoored on a ship of fools as we sail into the boring apocalypse, but dammit, we’re doing it together. Happy holidays, y’all. See you in a couple weeks.
Jason Stanford is the co-author of NYT-best selling Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. His bylines have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, and Texas Monthly, among others. He works at the Austin Independent School District as Chief of Communications and Community Engagement, though he would want to point out that these are his personal opinions and his alone, but you already knew that. Follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.
How we’re getting through this
Reading this obituary
Watching democracy recede
Getting ready for what’s next in public ed
What I’m reading
Andy Corren: “Renay Mandel Corren” - This sets the bar on obituaries.
Renay was preceded in death by Don Shula.
Dana Milbank: “The media treats Biden as badly as — or worse than — Trump. Here’s proof.” - Takes a lot to shock me these days. This did it.
In 2020, Trump presided over a worst-in-world pandemic response that caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths; held a superspreader event at the White House and got covid-19 himself; praised QAnon adherents; embraced violent white supremacists; waged a racist campaign against Black Lives Matter demonstrators; attempted to discredit mail-in voting; and refused to accept his defeat in a free and fair election, leading eventually to the violence of Jan. 6 and causing tens of millions to accept the “big lie,” the worst of more than 30,000 he told in office.
And yet Trump got press coverage as favorable as, or better than, Biden is getting today.
Maria Ressa: “Nobel Lecture” - Well, this ruined my lunch.
Facebook is the world’s largest distributor of news, and yet studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts on social media.
These American companies controlling our global information ecosystem are biased against facts, biased against journalists. They are – by design – dividing us and radicalizing us.
Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world’s existential problems: climate, coronavirus, the battle for truth.
What I’m watching
First, watch this…
…and then listen to this.
What I’m listening to
I missed “Hate Myself” when dodie dropped her debut full-length album in May. Good stuff.
I added “Vintage” by Blu DeTiger to the playlist. Come to find out, Blu DeTiger is her birth name!
Thanks to Noom, I lost 40 pounds and have kept it off for more than a year. Click on the blue box to get 20% off. Seriously, this works. No, this isn’t an ad. Yes, I really lost all that weight with Noom.
We set up a merch table in the back where you can get T-shirts, coffee mugs, and even tote bags now. Show the world that you’re part of The Experiment.
We’ve also got a tip jar, and I promise to waste every cent you give me on having fun, because writing this newsletter for you is some
Buy the book Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick banned from the Bullock Texas History Museum: Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of the American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and myself is out from Penguin Random House.