To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
– William Blake, extract from Auguries of innocence
Getting things faster, with less effort, increasing productivity: this is at the core of any theory and practice behind what we call Time Management.
Since the beginning of the last century, it has been a credo followed by many, and an undisputed principle in societies where driving achievement is the most admired and pursued skill.
But, surprisingly enough, it is also how our brains work: always looking for the easiest way and the best results.
Have you ever wondered how our brains perceive time? And how psychology understands it?
Have you asked yourself if our neurons are able to multitask? Or if you can handle any situation effectively, without letting memories or worries about the future interfere?
In this article, I’ll try to address some of these questions, taking a brief look at what neuroscience and psychology have to say us about time.
“Our study reveals how the brain makes sense of time as an event is experienced. The network does not explicitly encode time. What we measure is rather a subjective time derived from the ongoing flow of experience.” Albert Tsao
In our societies, we live immersed in conventions: clocks – and social conventions – measure and establish what a minute or an hour is, and we act accordingly. Nevertheless, our brains process time in a completely different way. Our mind and body have their own rules.
In our body, the experience of time is determined in two ways: by circadian rhythms or measured directly in our brain.
I’ve written an entire article about circadian rhythms; you can check it out here. But for the purpose of this article, let’s mention the basics.
The circadian rhythm is our internal clock. It is regulated mainly by the hypothalamus – which is also in control of other things, such as hormones, temperature, appetite, sexual behaviour, and emotions.
Our biological clock is reset each day, by sunlight. Although its primary function is exactly the same for all of us, the actual regulation of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness varies, depending on the person.
In short, this is the clock which tells us which part of the day when we are more alert and which part when we’ll find energy levels lower and will feel more sleepy. This internal clock which regulates our body is the reason why we feel uneasy when we are forced to adapt ourselves to new social conventions, or when we need to adjust to sudden changes (like travelling and jet lag, for example).
And what about our brains?
Research in the field of neuroscience has shown that the hippocampus – that seahorse-shaped part of the brain within the limbic system – plays a part in the formation of new memories.
In fact, it tracks time, in 10-second laps.
The capacity all we humans have, to associate and remember different events, is an essential part of what is called episodic memory, which will translate into something like “what”, “where” and “when” a particular thing happened.
A recent study by Albert Tsao and colleagues at NTNU’s Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience shows that there is a “neural clock” in our brains, keeping track of time.
Albert Tsao commented, “The network does not explicitly encode time. Instead, what we measure is subjective time, derived from the ongoing flow of experience“.
Let’s stop here for a moment. What does this mean?
It means that our neural clock is a sort of organiser, and what it does is arrange our experiences sequentially.
Therefore, what we experience as time is nothing more than the result of tracking our experiences in a specific order, merely accompanying the ongoing flow.
But there is more from the neuroscience field: a group of researchers in the NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), made a crucial discovery.
In the brain, there is a network of cells (located right next to the areas which also encode space) which expresses our sense of time, within each experience and memory.
“This network provides timestamps for events, and keeps track of the order of events within an experience,” says Professor Edvard Moser, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience.
But enough with neuroscience: what about psychology? How does the psyche interpret time? And how we deal with this interpretation?
” Psychological time is a product of the mind, more than a reflection of natural chronometric order” T.R. Trautmann
“The unconscious has no time” C. Jung
We all know that the perception of time is subjective. What is a minute for two lovers? Or for somebody who has missed the train? Or for a mother, waiting at the airport for the plane carrying her son to land?
However, despite this subjective aspect of time, humans need to be able to judge the duration of a particular event objectively. It is an essential part of living in society, in relation to others.
So, how does the psyche function to adapt to conventions? Does the mind suffer in any way because of this? How does the mind perceive time?
Psychology has always been fascinated with this subject – the perception of time, and it is in fact an academic field of study.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, never talked specifically about concepts such as time and space. There are no specific articles, chapters or books in his work devoted to the matter. What we have instead are documents and books, focused on what are considered pillars in psychoanalysis, intrinsically related to the notion of time. I’m talking here about subjects such as trauma, amnesia, fixation, repetition, and regression, just to name a few.
Time is undoubtedly at the heart of psychoanalysis, a science which tries to understand how present conflicts are determined and affected by events which occurred in the past.
Well, the thing is that in the unconscious mind, past, present and future coexist. Yes, timelessness is one of the characteristics of the unconscious mind. Time is not linear. (Nachträglichkeit – afterwardsness): we can see the effects of an old traumatic experience reinvesting a current event and arising, here and now, with the strength of then).
Moving away from psychoanalysis, we can see that other theories also put the emphasis on the concept of time.
In the case of the Gestalt, for example, the focus is on the present. Specifically, the here and now.
“To me, nothing exists except the now.” said Fritz Perls.
Concepts like awareness and present are fundamental to this theory, and modern times and schools have developed all sorts of exercises to help the mind to remain, as long as possible, in the present moment.
But this emphasis does not mean to ignore the importance of the past and the future.
Acknowledging that the mind will tend to dwell in the past or project into the future, Gestalt reinforces the need to focus on the here and now.
And what about Emotional Intelligence?
Dr Daniel Goleman popularised the words coined by researchers Peter Salovey and John Mayer. With a particular emphasis on the connection between the fields of psychology and neuroscience, this approach sees time as a precious resource.
Thus, time management is a desirable skill in reaching goals and general productivity.
I won’t overextend myself here, because I will dedicate a full article to this subject very soon. What I will say, is that for this theory, time – as well as emotions – can be managed and controlled.
To influence productivity and, therefore, success, you need to understand and control your emotions.
“Time is the heart of existence.” Henri Bergson
In this final part, I’d like to share with you some tips and exercises which will help you to remain in the here and now, focused and attentive, increasing your awareness.
Trust me: your brain will thank you.
- Breath in and breath out
Sit comfortably and relaxed. Check that your spine is straight and that you’re not putting extra pressure on your shoulders.
Pay attention to your breathing, without modifying it. Just observe it.
Now, consciously, inhale slowly through your nose, counting up to 5.
Hold your breath, counting up to 5 again.
Slowly, breath out, always counting up to 5.
Repeat the exercise 3 times and then breathe normally.
- Focus on the here and now
Choose an external object or sound which catches your attention (a pen, your phone, Alexa, a conversation next door, a dog barking outside the window).
Think about the object. What is it like? Does it have a particular shape, colour, smell, sound? Does it have a specific function? Note everything which comes into your mind.
Now, describe it again, beginning with: “At this moment, I notice the sound of…”, or “Right now, I’m seeing…”
End the exercise whenever you want.
- Recent past, present and next future
Take a moment and choose a non-work-related activity which you often do and enjoy (e.g. going to the gym, reading, listening to music while commuting, your yoga class in the morning).
Think about the last time you did it. When was it? How was it? Try to use adjectives to describe it: fun, stimulating, challenging, pleasant. Think about it and try to recreate the emotions and sensations felt at the moment of the activity.
Now, think about the next time you will be doing the same activity. When will it be? How do you imagine it will be? Why? Try to anticipate your sensations and emotions and describe them.
Finally, take a deep breath and come back to here and now. Where are you? What objects surround you? How do you feel now?
Following any of these exercises, take a moment to think about your experience. Was it easy? Was it uncomfortable? Would you like to repeat it some other time and see what happens?
I strongly recommend using pen and paper (or your phone for that matter) to record the experience. That way, when you repeat it, you can compare notes and follow up changes and progress.
Note: This article was specially written to complement the course “Time management across different cultures”, that you can check out here. The course, by Maria Antonietta Marino, is one of the many that Mudita Consultancy offers to those in seek of deeper understandings.”
Sources and recommended readings:
Arlow JA. Psychoanalysis and time. J Am Psychoanal Assoc. 1986;34(3):507-528. doi:10.1177/000306518603400301
Freud, S. Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (SE) (1886-1939) Vol I – XXV
Green, A. (2002). Time in Psychoanalysis: some contradictory aspects. London and New York: Free Association Books.
Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ
Goleman, D. (2000) Working with emotional intelligence.
Perls, F. (1969) Gestalt Therapy Verbatim
Perls, F., Hefferline, R., & Goodman, P., (1951) Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality.
Rubin A., Geva N., Sheintuch L., Ziv Y. (2015) Hippocampal ensemble dynamics timestamp events in long-term memory. Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. eLife 2015;4:e12247 DOI: 10.7554
Soysal Acar, A.Şebnem & Bodur, Sahin & Hizli Sayar, Gokben. (2005). The here and now therapy. Anadolu Psikiyatri Dergisi. 6. 274-280.
Trautmann, T. R. (1995). Time: Histories and Ethnologies. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Tsao A, Sugar J, Lu L, et al. (2018) Integrating time from experience in the lateral entorhinal cortex. Nature. 2018;561(7721):57-62. doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0459-6.