There are days, I must admit, when I really don’t do much of anything. Unless you count sleeping and watching TV as “doing” anything. But there are days — and these are, thankfully, becoming more and more frequent — when I am focused and able to get things done. This makes me feel very good about myself. That is, until I stand back and evaluate how much I got done. Invariably it seems to be a rather modest amount of work; an amount that someone else could have probably gotten done before lunch. Perhaps even before the morning coffee break!
What’s going on here?
I’ll admit that when I try to do a lot of different things I’m not very efficient. I’m not a good task-switcher. Winding down from one task and then winding up on the next — figuring out where I was and what I was doing and why — sucks up huge amounts of time. But even when I’ve been focused on one or two tasks for the day I still have this feeling that someone else could have accomplished a lot more.
To make things worse, this means that a lot of obvious things are left undone: laundry, dishes, cleaning, &c. And this tends to make me look lazy. “But, honestly, today I really, really wasn’t lazy! I didn’t watch TV at all!” That’s a hard sell sometimes.
Here’s what I think is going on — it’s one of the effects of depression. We all know that our perception of time is not consistent: “time flies when you’re having fun” and “a watched pot never boils.” But there’s more to it than a purely subjective experience of time. Perception of the passage of time can be affected in people with disruption of the frontal cortex, hippocampus, basal ganglia, and cerebellum. 1, 2 The hippocampus and basal ganglia are part of the limbic system (some also consider parts of the cortex, too) and depression affects the limbic system.
The effect here can be illustrated by a version of “the twin paradox” I recall seeing in a TV show about the theory of relativity. In this thought experiment, one of the twins flies to a black hole and orbits just this side of the event horizon. The other twin stays at home and they are in video communication with each other (it is a thought experiment, after all). To the twin on earth, the twin near the black hole is moving in slow motion. To the twin near the black hole, the twin on earth is moving at super-speed. The disparity is due to the difference in the gravitational fields experienced by each.
I imagine that’s how it is with me. I’m not saying that someone watching me work would see me work in slow motion but when I pause to think of a word for a second or two, it might be three or four of “their seconds.” My quick break to look (for the fifth time today) for something to eat in the empty refrigerator (because I don’t have “time” to go to the store) may be minutes to them. Time passes more slowly for me relative to them and so, in their world, I don’t get as much done because I don’t have as much time.
The twin paradox is very fitting because what slows down the one twin is an increased gravitation field in which the twin would feel very, very heavy and is weighed down. So, I could say that depression is like living near a black hole. There are so many levels on which that analogy works.