The Sensory Deprivation of Lockdown

Our senses are starved. They lie dormant, waiting for the reopening.

Photo: Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty Images

It is nearly a year now, though time no longer passes with any structure. Each day is the same, weekends bleed into weeks, days into months, the seasons blur into each other.

There are three categories of people in lockdown: couples without children, couples with children, and single people. The couples without children have learned languages, watched box sets, and made sourdough bread. They’ve gone for long walks, played board games, argued, and made love. The couples with children have been running exclusive boarding schools: being parents, teachers, playmates, nannies, and cooks. The single people have been trapped in a massive sociology experiment to see what happens if you lock someone in their home for months on end. They are on Zoom drinks, chat apps, fantasy swiping on Tinder, pacing, walking, learning about themselves.

A life normally rich in texture and color is smoothed out into monotone sackcloth.

There are, of course, the subcategories; those who have been able to work from home, and those who have to go out to work. Some have found it frustrating and boring, others have been forced to take daily risks, or had to contend with genuinely traumatic experiences.

For everyone, a great struggle in lockdown has been sensory deprivation. A life normally rich in texture and color is smoothed out into monotone sackcloth. The interactions have gone. Even when we can meet we don’t shake hands, kiss, hug; we close in on ourselves, trapped in our own personal space. We crave contact, imagine reaching out and touching, but then restrain ourselves, suppressing even our most innocent desires.

But beyond the human interaction, the layers of sensory stimulation have just evaporated from our lives. The noises that formed the backdrop of our days and nights are silenced; the city no longer hums. There were so many noises we never even noticed, but now without them, something is missing, even if we cannot define it. The sound of a late-night party, of drunk people walking home in the dark, laughing, singing. Airplanes, cars, traffic jams. The noise of a summer street in town, lined with restaurants, people talking, the clatter of cutlery on plates, glasses chinking, music.

There is no laughter. We laugh less, in private, together, at home, in shops. We don’t hear people laughing in the background. We don’t hear crowds of people, infected with laughter.

All the passions and sensuality have fallen under the puritanical abstinence of lockdown. We don’t gather around dinner tables, eating food made to be shared, drinking too much wine, laughing, talking across each other, debating, remembering the past, and creating new shared memories. We do not dance, seduce, flirt, glance, blush, rush with excitement from the attention of another. We do not meet new people.

Even the smells have gone. With restaurants closed, we no longer taste their food in the air as we walk past their doors or the windows of their kitchens. We don’t smell a stranger’s perfume as we pass in the street. We do not grimace privately at the strange cacophony of human odors on an early morning train. We do not notice when the air is acrid with car fumes, or sweet smelling without. The air is just the air now, not much traffic, not many planes, it is pleasant, nicer than before, but uniform.

We lack surprises. Serendipity doesn’t thrive in a time of fear, control, and isolation.

We no longer chat. One hour Zoom calls are very efficient, we dive straight into the topic, discuss it, end, and leave. We do not meet in the corridor, have a coffee break together, go for lunch, stand outside having a cigarette. Our interactions are all on a clock, 30 minutes, 60 minutes, two dimensional, and end with a red button. We don’t find ourselves in the same elevator, or on the same bus home. We all appear, then disappear.

There is no variation. We lack surprises. Serendipity doesn’t thrive in a time of fear, control, and isolation. So, every day is much the same, each week like the last. Our new rhythms are dictated not by calendars, but by infection rates, lockdown levels, and the weather.

When it is cold and wet, we retreat into our boxes; stay at home, call people, order food, and close our eyes to try to remember what it was all like before. When the weather improves we go out, we let ourselves enjoy the sight and sounds of other people, in parks, on streets. We smile across the invisible walls between us, maybe go for walks with friends that end with an awkward shrug and a wave, no kisses or hugs, no touch, no connection.

Our senses are starved. They lie dormant, waiting for the reopening. Once this is really over, whenever that is, they will awake like bears from a long hibernation, stiff, dry, heavy, and will crawl out into the light, hungry. After shaking off the darkness, after some nourishment and reorientation, our senses — like a bear — will tower up and roar. There will come a time when all we want to do is eat, drink, laugh, hug, scream, sing, run, dance, and crash into each other, love like friends, love like lovers, and love like strangers.

Until then, we find little pleasures to tickle our sleeping senses; new food, old music, favorite books, stolen conversations with people serving us coffee, fixing our bike, a doctor, or a bus driver. We live on, and will live again.

Writing about politics, history, and society. An outsider's view on the USA, insider's view on the UK, and cautious optimist. www.tswriting.co @ts_writing

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