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Notre Dame professor studies time, urges students to change perspective on pandemic

| Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Dr. Meghan Sullivan has always been interested in the passage of time. As a Notre Dame Wilsey Family professor of philosophy, she has spent her career studying the human perception of time, including writing a book called “Time Biases” on the subject.

Sullivan has now used her time expertise to write an article, published in Psychology Today, urging readers to use what she coins “mental time travel” as a way to get through the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Courtesy of Meghan Sullivan
Meghan Sullivan is a Notre Dame professor of philosophy who studies the human perception of time.

Sullivan said her idea for the article came from her unusual 2020 Christmas experience spent away from her family.

“This is only the second time in my life I’ve ever spent Christmas without my family,” Sullivan said. “I thought quite a bit about whether or not I was making the right decision, in particular because I knew I was going to feel super bummed out at Christmas missing them.”

Sullivan said that her knowledge of philosophy and time helped her endure the hardship that came from being away from family.

“This was an area where I thought knowing a little bit of philosophy was really helpful because every time I’d get kind of sad about missing out on Christmas together, I would think, ‘we’re doing this for next Christmas,’” Sullivan said. “I can imagine what next year will be like and the decisions I’m making now are making that possible.”

Sullivan said in her article that she encourages everyone to use this type of future thinking, or “mental time travel,” to make the hard decisions easier to bear.

Mental time travel, Sullivan explained, is an innately human ability to be able to place ourselves in a greater timeline during times of stress or adversity.

“One of the things that makes it really special to be a human being is that we can do this kind of ‘mental time travel,’” Sullivan explained. “We can bounce around, and we imagine our lives as having these really long spread-out extensions in time, but then also sometimes we get really locked in a moment or really frustrated, especially if we’re under a great deal of stress, we tend to get really locked into the present.”

Sullivan explained that another aspect that goes along with mental time travel is thinking about time versus risk — making hard decisions in the present to benefit our future.

“There’s always a little bit of uncertainty about what we’re going to be like in the future and what the future itself is going to bring,” Sullivan said. “But we want to make sure that when we’re not paying enough attention to the future, or not being willing to make big enough sacrifices now for a great future, that we’re paying attention to the stuff that really matters like the risk and uncertainty.”

The uncertainty of being human, Sullivan said, requires careful thought when it comes to possibilities and risk.

“One of the tricky things about being human is we’ve got to somehow do the math right about risk.”

Sullivan said she hopes students and others who read her article stop to think about what stories they will tell in the future about their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love it if people read this story,” Sullivan said, “and took a minute to start to think about how they would want to fit the sacrifices that they’ve made this year into this story about why their lives are meaningful and wonderful.”

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About Bella Laufenberg

Bella Laufenberg is a sophomore biological sciences major, who likes news much more than organic chemistry. She has a supplementary major in classics and is in the journalism, ethics and democracy minor. At The Observer, she is the New Writer Editor and works production.

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