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How Did a Spaniard’s 500-Day Isolation in a Cave Impact Her Perception of Time?


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Spending a year and a half in a cave may seem like a nightmare for many people, but Spanish athlete Beatriz Flamini smiled cheerfully and said she thought she had more time to finish her book.

She had little to no contact with the outside world during her remarkable feat of human endurance. For 500 days, she documented her experience to help scientists understand the effects of extreme lockdown.

And one of the first things I saw on April 12, 2023, when I stepped out of the cave, was the fluidity of time, a quality that is determined more by your personality and the people around you than by the ticking of a clock.

Speaking to reporters about her experience, Flamini explained that she quickly lost track of time. The loss of time was so great that when the support team came for her, she was surprised that her time was up, instead believing she had only been there for 160-170 days.

Why did she lose her sense of time?

Our actions, emotions, and changes in the environment can greatly influence how our minds process time.

For most people, sunrise and sunset mark the passage of days, and work and social routines affect the passage of hours. And in the darkness of the underground cave, without outside company, many traces of the passage of time disappear.

Thus, Flamini may have become more dependent on psychological processes to keep track of time. One way to track the passage of time is memory. If we don’t know how long we’ve been doing something for it, we use the number of memories formed during the event as a measure of how much time has passed. The more memories we form of an event or era, the longer we realize that it lasted.

Busy days and weeks with a lot of new and interesting events are usually remembered longer than more monotonous ones, when nothing remarkable happens.

For Flamini, the lack of social interaction, combined with a lack of information about family and current affairs, may have greatly reduced the number of memories formed during her loneliness.

Flamini herself explained, “I’m still stuck on November 21, 2021. I don’t know anything about this world.”

The loss of time may also reflect a decline in the importance of time in cave life. In the outside world, the busyness of modern life and the social pressure to not waste time means that many of us live in a constant time crunch. For us, an hour is a measure of how productive and successful we are as adults.

Flamini is not the first to experience changes in her experience over time following a change in environment. A similar experience was reported by the French scientist Michel Sever during his two to six month journeys through the caves in the 1960s and 1970s.

Lost time was consistently reported by adults and children who spent long periods of time in isolation in nuclear bunkers (for research purposes) during the height of the Cold War.

Caves, nuclear bunkers, prisons and global pandemics have two things in common that seem to create an altered sense of time. It isolates us from the big world and includes closed spaces.

However, Flamini lived with an empty schedule that extended into her future. No business meetings to prepare for, no meetings to rush, and no social notes to keep.

She led an autonomous life where she could eat, sleep and read whenever she wanted. She engaged in drawing, exercising and documenting her experiences. Perhaps it made the passage of time irrelevant.

As the biological rhythms of sleep, thirst, and digestion took over from the ticking hands of the clock, Flamini may have simply become less focused as time went on, eventually losing count.

Flamini’s ability to let go of time may have been enhanced by her strong desire to reach her 500 day goal. In the end, she decided to go to the cave and could leave if she wanted to.

For people who are imprisoned against their will, time can become a prison in itself. Prisoners of war and people serving prison sentences often mention that watching the passage of time can become an obsession. It seems that we can only truly let go of time when we are in control of it.

However, underground life is not for the faint of heart. Your survival depends on your ability to maintain a high level of mental stability.

And if you have the ability to stay calm and get things done when things go wrong, a strong belief that you are in control of your behavior, known as a locus of internal control, and you can easily adjust to your own thoughts, then you can have the power spirit to succeed.

The report was prepared by Ruth Ogden, Lecturer in Experimental Psychology at the University of Liverpool, John Moores.

Source: Science Alert

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