Tom Jonard's Mind Time PageWe are all familiar with the measurement of time. Pick any regularly recurring event and count each cycle. Cycles of the sun and moon were early and easy to count. To improve the precision select events that recur more quickly like the swing of a pendulum or the quiver of an atom. So the flow of time is evenly divided into units and mechanically counted for us by devices we can place or carry just about any where. Indeed the micro-electronics that control so many devices today so depend on this principle that providing a read out of hours and minutes is both cheap and easy. So it is that it seems almost as if no gadget can be bought that does not also have a clock.
The time we measure is but one form of time. It is the time of scientists who seek to divide the world into ever smaller pieces to discover its workings. It is the time of technology with which we regulate our lives and assure that planes and trains* and we ourselves arrive "on time". But there is another kind of time. It is the subjective time of our experience that we have dutifully trained to submit to the regulation of our measurement devices. Sometimes it seems we have become slave to these devices which were meant to serve us as when we find ourselves resetting all the clocks we own after a power failure. And in a real sense we have slaved our sense of time to our measurement of it. As a result we are surprised when that sense asserts itself or when we explore it more closely.
Our bodies also have clocks although certainly not of the mechanical kind. All of us are familiar with the highs and lows we experience both through the day and especially for some seasonally. We are also aware that some of us are "morning" people and some are not. Careful physiological monitoring reveals variations in response, attention and hormonal levels that parallel this anecdotal evidence of our natural variability. Nor are these variations dependent solely on external queues like light and temperature. Subjects isolated in caves display a natural circadian cycle -- albeit of 26 and not 24 hours (probably evidence that this rhythm was set during the evolution of our species when the length of the day was longer).
The cycles of our biological clocks certainly set the rhythm for our mental experience of time though that is not the whole story. The subjective experience of time can be vary considerably. We say that "time flies" or "time drags" to express the sensation that we feel less time or more time has passed than shows on the clock on the wall. If our interest is aroused time flies. If we are bored it lags. When we review the past on the other hand periods of little activity seem short -- think of a lazy summer day -- while others that were full of activity seem to have taken more time. Emotional state also effects how we view time. We both experience and retrospectively view times of heightened emotion as being both more vivid and longer -- veterans of combat report the period of their service being the time the felt most alive and recall most clearly.
Our experience of time basically consists of the events that happen to us enhanced or suppressed by our accompanying emotional state. It is not at all like the uniform ticking of a mechanical clock. Some "researchers" into so-called "alien abduction" make a big point of "missing time". It seems that we can't all account for where we have been all the time. These "researchers" say that this is a sign that we (or at least a large number of us) have been abducted by space aliens. The missing time is when we were in the custody of these aliens which the aliens have caused us to forget to hide their activities. This scenario simply misinterprets how we perceive time. Time we forget where we've been is more likely to be simply time when nothing much happened worth remembering.
Nevertheless missing time of another kind does provide a window on the mental processes behind our experience of time. Amnesia is a deficit not just of memory but also of time. Its victims are not only missing memories they are also are unable to place themselves in time. Without memory there is no context in which to determine when is now. Neither is there any personal historical narrative to even give hint as to the current era. Victims of amnesia may not know the date, the year, their age or even the decade. Still if they can remember from the onset of their amnesia their sense of time passing from that point -- their experience of time -- is unaffected.
Some victims with specific brain damage also are unable to put each successive instant into its place in their history. These victims have not only lost the past but their inability to form new memories causes them to continue to lose the past instant by instant as the future becomes present. They have no sense of time at all -- neither the hour, day, year or decade. They exist only in an eternal now. In their ability still to hold on to the current instant we perhaps see the minimal functioning of their biological clocks. But without the additional processing involved in memory formation present time does not become remembered history. Such an existence in the eternal present is also a timeless existence.
Another effect sometimes seen in amnesia is a person who knows their own history only atemporally. They may know for instance that they are married but not be able to say for how long much less recall the date. Or they may know they have families but not recall the ages of their children or their birth order. Damage to the mechanism that creates memories can also effect the mechanism of their recall so that events that predate the onset of amnesia are also lost in time.
Such deficits show a clear link between memory and the experience of time. But they do not yet reveal how the mind goes about structuring memory to produce that experience. Clearly sequence (simple ordering) as well as significance (emotional content) have some contribution in converting the simple biological experience of time into a sense of personal, historical time. The result is just as surprising -- our experience of time is in fact a narrative story of our selves. Like a book or movie this story is authored and edited. Perhaps unlike either it may not be fixed but revisable given subsequent experience. We certainly know that brain damage can alter it fundamentally.
Books and movies offer us another insight into our experience of time. Consider the way the mind is able to construct a clear temporal sequence out of a book or movie plot that uses flashbacks, parallel plot lines or similar devices. Even the simplest plot is likely to have gaps in time in order to tell a longer story in the time allotted and to omit irrelevant events. If they are not too intrusive we think nothing of these devices and are able make sense of the story. Events do not have to be presented to the mind in sequence for it to be able to build a experience of time in sequence. This ability of the mind is what makes it possible for authors and movie makers to use these devices in telling stories.
Physicist John Archibald Wheeler once said that, "Time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once." I'm not sure what it would mean if everything happened all at once but maybe it would be like experiencing things randomly. In his novel Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut's protagonist Billy Pilgrim involuntarily experiences his life in a seemingly random order -- time tripping between present and future or past under the guidance of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore who do not experience time sequentially as we do. Perhaps our experience of time keeps us from randomly shuffling past, present and future -- at least in our minds. Without the temporal structure provided for us by the mind we might like Billy Pilgrim all experience all of our times mixed together.
Though we believe we experience time as a quality of the external world that experience is in fact a construct of our minds. As long as our constructed temporal experience matches the external world as commonly experienced by others this is not evident. When through accident the mechanisms of our temporal experience are disrupted we are set adrift in a timeless world. We are temporal beings dependent the ordering abilities of our minds.
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*Systematizing the measurement of time was a key component in the development of a nationwide rail system in the 18th century -- specifically in keeping trains from arriving in the same place at the same time.
Created April 9, 2003,
© 2003, Thomas A. Jonard