Time is (of) The Essence: Time in the Eyes of a Child

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”
Frederick Douglass

The inspiration for this next blog post originated during the second presentation at the concluding celebratory event marking 50 Years of Applied Psychology at UCC. The speaker was Dr. Julie Turner-Cobb from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath. I recently had the pleasure of sitting in Julie’s company over an academic dinner, and found the conversation extremely engaging and thought provoking (thank you Julie!).

Julie’s forte lies in Psychobiology¹. The birth of this hybrid discipline was ultimately induced, not by Oxytocin, but by the establishment of the biomedical model of stress reactivity, coupled with gradual acceptance of psychology as an authentic science (rather than a copycat discipline of wannabe scientists who always seem to be picked last for the scientific dream team!)

www.dailyfeedback.co.uk
www.dailyfeedback.co.uk

Julie discussed her research on neuroendocrine patterns of stress during childhood, highlighting the importance of exploring individual differences in patterns of stress appraisal, reactivity and recovery. One of her many contributions to the field is in the development of the Bath Experimental Stress Test for Children (BEST-C), a laboratory stress paradigm designed with the specific incorporation of stressors that are ecologically valid and meaningful to children, thus allowing researchers to mirror the kinds of stressors that children face in everyday life and examine their physiological effects. In addition to this, Julie discussed the necessity of effective intervention following childhood stress and adversity, as well as the importance of timely intervention. It is on account of scientists like Dr. Turner-Cobb, that we recognize how adversity in childhood shapes these neuroendocrine patterns of stress reactivity, and why children experience the many health challenges associated with severe or prolonged biological stress reactivity. But, I am no psychobiologist, and it’s unlikely that I will ever become one (with apologies to my PhD supervisor Dr. Samantha Dockray who is a #psychobiologist4life, and a damn good one at that!). Nevertheless, Julie’s presentation really got me thinking. Come to think of it, I must have looked shamefully similar to my former self (pictured below) as I sat there gazing up at her, wondering offhandedly about how subjective time may be pertinent to the presentation topic…

I began to speculate about the role of stressful childhood experiences in the development of our individual time orientation, that is, our overall cognitive involvement in the past, the present and the future. Have a quick think about where you spend most of your mental time. Is it in the past? The future? Or are you mostly caught up in the present? Actually, as well as thinking about it, you can illustrate it on a piece of paper. Grab a pencil and draw 3 circles on a blank page, one representing the past, another the present, and finally a third for the future². These circles can be placed anywhere on the page, they can touch, overlap or be completely separate; they can also be any size you like. There is only one rule: the size of each circle must represent how much time you spend thinking about each time frame relative to the other two. After you’ve congratulated yourself on your latest work of art, take a look at the overall picture. Here is mine:

In essence, what you have drawn should provide you with a general sense of your subjective time orientation (but bear in mind, this changes with age and context). Next, think about how your childhood might have shaped the illustration you have just drawn. Do you dwell on traumatic experiences? Did you learn to live for the future and the infinite possibilities that it brings? Do you value family traditions? Or did your past zoom by without a trace behind, so much so that your mind now automatically favours the present moment, because in reality, it is the only certainty that you have? Keep the answers to these questions floating around in your mind, but I want to briefly diverge from the topic of time orientation to focus on another time variable, which, as you will come to see, is also pertinent to this discussion. This variable is the perception of time in space (which, funnily enough, is actually a form of synesthesia). In fact, of the many variables that constitute subjective time, the perception of time in space is, in my opinion, perhaps the most variable of all! It differs so greatly across individuals, depending on how you ask people to describe their perception of time in space (e.g. the perception of week days, of the calendar year, of the past century, the list goes on). But, we can identify broad but reliable cultural patterns when individuals are asked to outline how they generally see the past, the present and the future in space.

Like me, some of you reading this have grown up in the Western world. This means that before we even knew what time was, the manner in which we would come to perceive time in space was pretty much ready and waiting for us – having been established by Newton some 300 years ago and refined as a Western cultural world view over many subsequent decades. As we grew up, we learned to perceive time in space as linear, travelling along a thin straight line, flowing irreversibly towards the future, which is situated to the right of the line as it so happens (bringing a new truth to Beyoncé’s Irreplaceable, where the memoirs of a past relationship are situated in a box to the left). In the West, we learn as children that the past happens then, the present now, the future some time later.

But something profound happens when you take a moment to look at a child. For a few short seconds, it’s as though the present and the future occur in parallel, side by side at the very same time, rather than one coming after the other in succession. For a few sort seconds, you can’t help but feel that both the present and the future are now. When you look into the child’s eyes, it’s hard not to consider how those same eyes will visit a future that you could never visit. They will come to see things that you will never see and perceive things that you might never understand. They will cry with happiness, joy, sadness and fear. Eventually, they will require more assistance and care. As they age and tire, the world will become blurry and indistinct, but at the same time clearer than ever before, because they will be experienced and wise.

The experiences of younger generations will shape the future of our society; its values, its priorities, its standards. In this sense, we are obligated to do all that we can to ensure that these experiences are enriching, stimulating, and for the most part, positive (or at the very least teachable, so that some positive element can be redeemed with a little digging). Sadly, though, this standard is an ideal, and like most ideals it exists far from the reality. It is an unfortunate truth that in every country, society and culture, some children are mistreated or fall victim to stressors which vary in duration, form and intensity. Some of these stressors are major life events that are not always in our immediate control, e.g. societal conflict or natural disasters. Often, it is the chronic build-up of every-day stressors (typically familial or peer based) that has direct and detrimental physiological and psychological effects to the child’s long term wellbeing. With these children in your mind, wherever they may be (you might be one of them), let’s consider one of the few true facts of life: Everybody in this world has one inevitability in common – a childhood that will become our history as we transition through the various stages of life. In this sense, the Western linear perception of time in space mirrors the natural transitions across the lifespan. An example is illustrated below. I understand that this may be intuitive to many of you, but remember – it is only intuitive because this is how your cultural world view has trained you to intuit. In other cultures, where time is perceived as circular rather than linear, where the past is a conscious and essential part of everyday living, this conception could be considered, well, a bit odd.

This image is based on my current life-stage and perception of time. As I am 25, my present is young adulthood (though not for much longer ). Yours should follow in the same direction, though the names of the life stages pertinent to you depending on how far into the future you extend your thinking, e.g. in your past you may have ‘childhood’ & ‘early adolescence’, your present ‘late adolescence’ and your future ‘emerging adulthood’.

[[This image is based on my current life-stage and perception of time. As I am 25, my present is young adulthood (though not for much longer :(). Yours should follow in the same direction, though the names of the life stages pertinent to you depend on how far into the future you extend your thinking, e.g. in your past you may have ‘childhood’ & ‘early adolescence’, your present ‘late adolescence’ and your future ‘emerging adulthood’.]]


But what about our psychological time? What about our time orientation? Well, that’s the most interesting part, and indeed the most relevant to the topic of time and childhood adversity. The beauty of subjective time lies in the fact that our body can be permanently situated in the present moment, with our life-stage objectively determined by our year of birth. But our minds? Well, they can be anywhere…reminiscing…sensation seeking…envisioning! By now, most of you will hopefully have an idea of your general time orientation (the circles should have done the trick). But where does the ‘mind time’ of those who faced severe adversity and trauma in early life orient? The answer is yet another unfortunate truth. For some of these individuals, the notion of subjective time is anything but a beautiful phenomenon. In fact, it is more of a living nightmare.

For some of these individuals, being dominant in past time orientation fosters a mental space in which the past can never be left behind. For others, the severity of trauma and adversity can shift their dominant time orientation, abruptly dragging it back from the present or future to the past. Either way, to these individuals, the past is not just something situated to the left. It is not just a thing to be recalled fondly or recounted. It is not a distant memory to be forgotten. Rather, it is now, or more accurately, they are stuck

PPF3

Their bodies remain in the present, but their mind is firmly rooted in a past that is filled with painful memories, and contrary to intuition, reality in the present moment is not the only certainty that these individuals experience. Every stressful and traumatic memory is re-experienced over and over again, until it ultimately consumes their present life. In this instance, we can see how severe early life stress and trauma do not only generate consequences to physical health, but also to psychological wellbeing, and the psychological consequences can truly be devastating; intrusive thoughts, recurrent ruminations, disintegration of the individuals cognitive-emotional systems leading to intense and overwhelming negative affect, we well as confusion between past trauma and present reality, to name but a few. If you recall, I mentioned an ideal at the beginning of this post – that as a society we are obligated to ensure that the experiences of younger generations are enriching and stimulating. When we are unsuccessful, as we so often are, then we are absolutely obligated to clean, dress and heal the wounds, regardless of whether the children in question are no longer children, and especially if they have grown up and visited the future…only to find that they are stuck in the past.

Bandages

So what can we do? Well, we know that subjective time is a necessary and important element to consider in exploring the lived experience of individuals who have fallen victim to acute adversity, trauma or chronic stress in early life. So, it makes sense to focus on a solution that is timely (pun intended). In fact, there is an entire form of therapy dedicated to time! It focuses on mending an individual’s relationship with time, so that he or she can experience time on a more balanced playing field, rather than one that is biased toward a particular time frame – the past. It’s called ‘Time Perspective Therapy’, it focuses on restoring positive past memories, while working toward positive and achievable future goals, with a little room for a bit of hedonism along the way! It’s been tried and tested on war veterans with PTSD, with significant decreases in anxiety, depression and PTSD symptoms. To the best of my knowledge though, it has yet to be tried and tested for those whose stress and trauma originates from childhood experiences. But I may be mistaken, and welcome any examples that prove me wrong! Read more about it here 🙂


Before I finish, I would like to end on a more personal note. You may recall the following statement from earlier in this post.

… But something profound happens when you take a moment to look at a child. For a few short seconds, it’s as though the present and the future occur in parallel, side by side at the very same time, rather than one coming after the other in succession. For a few sort seconds, you can’t help but feel that both the present and the future are now. When you look into the child’s eyes, it’s hard not to consider how those same eyes will visit a future that you could never visit…

Below you will find two sets of childhood images.  Underneath all images, you will find the words of the individual pictured in it.

The first set are childhood images of six individuals who have all now transitioned into adulthood (myself included). These pictures represent a snapshot of the past that was once a present moment with a future, a future that the individual has now already experienced. In this sense, these images perfectly represent our tripartite conception of the subjective time experience.

The final three images are snapshots of three very special people. These are images of children who’s childhood is now, and it is occurring in a wonderful collection of present moments like a paper people chain. We know that most younger children lack the neurological capacity to really think long term, to truly consider themselves as future adults. But we asked them to try anyway – take a look at what they said.

 

Gillian Picture

“When I look at my younger self it makes me remember how curious and inquisitive I was. I always wanted to know everything! I wonder what my childhood self would think if I could have a conversation with her and tell her what I’m doing with my life now? Would she want to be my friend? I hope so!”


Samantha Picture

“When I look into my 4 year old eyes, I can’t imagine that as a little girl I ever thought I would be as old as I am now, and the person I am today can’t quite believe I was ever so young.  I’ve always been an ‘of- and in- the moment’ person, and trying to understand myself as a four year old and myself now…well, it highlights how little I think of the past or the future”


Sarah Foley Picture

“This picture makes me wish that I could remember more about how it felt to be this little girl. Her eyes were always bright and shining, and in a strange way, I feel a responsibility towards her to live a life that she deserves and not lose that childish sense of wonder completely, no matter how far removed I feel from her”


Lisa Picture

“I find it interesting to think about how this little girl’s future is now my past. The future these eyes saw was not at all what they were expecting, and if I could go back and change it – I honestly would. The standards I held for my future became more idealistic as I grew, and so when reality fell short, I felt cheated. But, I am trying my best to learn, so that history won’t repeat itself”


Feargus Picture

“When I look at my younger self, I think about how happy and unaware I was then. But then I realise that isn’t quite right, because I remember (just like every child) I had troubles…maybe I wasn’t allowed another slice of cake or I couldn’t remember my times tables… But now those troubles look as small as the face looking back at me. It helps me put life in perspective – no matter how big things seem then or now, everything is small when we look from far enough away”


Siobhan Picture

“This image reminds me of all of the dreams I used to have. Some were more unrealistic than others (wanting to be a princess). But I like to think that I’ve done the best I could for that little girl and that she would be proud of my choices.”


Sarah C Picture

“When I was this age I had smaller clothes and smaller boots. I was silly. I didn’t go to a big school but I do now. I’m going be get much, much, MUCH bigger! The future is the day after this day”
(Pictured aged 2, now aged 5)


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I am just a little child in the photo…I’m almost a baby.  I look happy and relaxed and I am like that now.  I’m always going to be like that, even when I’m much, much older – like ten”
(Pictured aged 3, now aged 6)


Grace C Picture

“I was a small baby but I’m going to be a big girl. I want to work and work and I’m going to do more work when I’m a big girl. I’m going to paint my face when I grow up”
(Pictured aged 1, now aged 3)


¹ An enjoyable and engaging introduction to this field as it applies to everyday living is called “Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers“, by Robert Sapolsky
² Cottle, T. J. (1967). The Circles Test: An Investigation of Perceptions of Temporal Relatedness and Dominance.Journal of Projective Techniques and Personality Assessment, 31(5).

Time is (of) the Essence – Time & the Psychology of Suicidal Behaviour

Suicide is the only cause of death in the top ten causes of deaths that is increasing, not decreasing, in the number of victims that it claims each year1

Starry Starry Night ~ Vincent van Gogh
Starry Starry Night ~ Vincent Van Gogh

To continue from the previous blog post

The first speaker to present at the concluding celebratory event marking 50 Years of Applied Psychology at UCC, was professor Rory O’ Connor from the University of Glasgow. As leader of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory, Professor O’ Connor has dedicated his career thus far to investigating the psychological processes which underlie self-inflicted bodily harm and suicidality. The fundamental questions that are addressed throughout his body of work are not unlike those questions that you or I might ask ourselves each time we turn on the news and hear of yet another suicide…

‘Where did it all go wrong for him?’

‘How could someone possibly reach a point where death seems like the only way out?’

‘What was happening in her mind right before she did it?’

Suicide, like all complex human behaviours, is multifaceted in its causality. We have identified and can understand common risk factors that are present in those who decide to end their lives (e.g. mental illness, social/economic deprivation and drug/alcohol abuse). If they are present, we can recognise the warning signs that a friend or family member might exhibit when contemplating suicide or planning to commit suicide (e.g. giving away personal belongings, personality changes and engaging in uncharacteristic risk-taking behaviour). But it still remains that social and familial circumstances, genetic endowment, perceptions, cognitions, and personality traits differ so vastly across individuals that to identify one definitive causal theory (i.e. a one size fits all aetiology) is not only impossible, but nonsensical. This was one of the primary take home messages of the talk.

I recently had a conversation with an elderly man on this very topic. It was outside on a bench, a fairly crisp afternoon. We started chatting, not greatly in depth, and in an unmistakable West Cork twang, he asked me a question as casually as any Irishman would ask something along of lines of, ‘isn’t there a grand stretch in the evenings?’ He asked, ’tis the ultimate choice isn’t it…the choice between life and death?’ I don’t know what had happened in his life to afford him the ease at which he disclosed this simplistic, yet profound perspective, but as Professor O’ Connor spoke, I remembered him, and found myself contemplating the many ways in which personal time can influence this ultimate choice.

*Personal/subjective time concerns only our experience and perception of time. It can differ vastly across individuals (and within individuals depending on things like context and age). This is opposed to objective time; the position of the hands on the clock, for example.

I thought of how subjective time has both a definitive and unique role to play: Definitive in that the scientific method has determined a valid and legitimate role for subjective time in the psychology of suicide and suicidal behaviour. Unique in that, unlike other causal factors, our experience and perception of time can exert a profound influence on both sides of the suicide coin; it is the ying and the yang, it can be a virtue and a vice, it acts in sickness and in health, i.e. subjective time has been demonstrated to aid in ‘successful’ suicide (for lack of a better term), and also to act as a means by which to intervene and prevent (although this post will focus more on the role of subjective time in suicidal behaviour rather than in its prevention; I’ll save this for a future post)…

Pic 2 ying yang

Not only this, it has been discovered that the role of subjective time in suicidal thinking/behaviour is in fact two-fold; neurological and psychological. That is, our brain’s perception of passing time (i.e. time perception), and our personal attitudes towards time (i.e. time perspective) each have a distinct role to play.

Professor O’ Connor’s research was not the first to emphasise the role of subjective time in the act of suicide. George Greaves2 highlighted the role of present and future thinking in suicidal patients in the 1970’s, reporting that suicidal individuals were more likely to orient towards present thinking than future thinking. Greaves’ research was built upon by Roy Baumeister3, whose work stems back to the 1990’s, highlighting the role of restricted temporal focus in the build up to suicide; that is, the individuals’ thinking is constricted to a narrow focus on the present, and any future imaginable, is a future that is not worth living. Andrew MacLeod and colleagues4 conducted research on the role of hopelessness (pessimism towards the future) in suicidal thinking, which has been substantiated in O’ Connor’s own work.

With the objective of synthesising decades of research (including their own) into an aetiological framework that is flexible enough to account for individual differences in suicidal thinking, intention and behaviour, O’ Connor, Platt and Gordon5 formulated the IMV Model in 2011 (The Integrated Motivational-Volitional Model of Suicidal Behaviour). In this model, impaired positive future thinking occupies a firm role in the development of suicidal thoughts and suicide intention formation, with findings that impaired positive future thinking is an even stronger predictor of suicidal ideation than global hopelessness6. What is more, and seemingly counter-intuitive, is that for people with a history of attempting suicide, hopeful intrapersonal future thinking (i.e. thinking that concerns only the self) was found to be a significant predictor of a repeated suicide attempt in those with a history of suicidal beahviour7, i.e. people with self-focused hopeful thoughts were more at risk of repeating a suicide attempt. Sound a bit odd? Well, Professor O’ Connor proposes that individuals who are more prone to suicidal thinking/behaviour likely interpret such thoughts as unattainable and out of their reach. This in turn intensifies feelings of entrapment, the feeling of being unable to escape from defeating circumstances, i.e. feeling trapped in the present situation.

Image from sciencechannel.com
Image from www.sciencechannel.com

“I have no special talents or skills. I have no way of ever impacting the world or making other peoples’ lives better. What will I have accomplished if I make it to 70? Nothing that would really matter. So what’s the point?”
~ Suicide Note, Anonymous

At this point, try (if you’re willing and able) to imagine what must be like to have a suicidal mind; feeling entrapped and worthless, deprived of the ability to feel accomplished, or the sense that you can achieve something you feel is worthwhile. You might imagine then that time, in this case, would feel as though it were dragging on…and on…and on…that a minute would feel like an hour, and trying to live an extra day would feel like you’re gearing up to live for eternity. Well, you wouldn’t be far from the truth…

Image from lifehacker.com
Image from www.lifehacker.com

I’m currently knee deep a fascinating book, ‘Time Warped’, written by psychologist and science communicator, Claudia Hammond (it’s blowing my mind and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning how the brain perceives time). All that I have discussed so far seems to fit neatly into research conducted on depression, suicidal behaviour and time perception (the neuroscientific study of how the brain perceives time), all of which is highlighted in the first chapter. As most people are now aware, depression is a major risk factor for suicide (although suicide can occur in the absence of clinical depression). Research has consistently identified inaccurate time estimations in clinically depressed patients 8,  9,  10. It has been shown that time can feel twice as long as it actually is to those suffering from depression, with depressed people typically overestimating the amount of time that has passed and giving time estimations that are longer compared to people who are not depressed. So, on a neurological level, time appears to be running much slower than actually is. In fact, evidence for this occurrence is so convincing that Martin Wyllie (2005), a philosopher of psychiatry, recommends that mental health professionals use time estimations tasks to compliment other more traditional diagnostic tools for depression. The idea being that a person with clinical depression, when asked to estimate the length of a period of time (e.g. 1 minute), will reliably over-estimate this length of time. The question is however (as eloquently posed by Claudia Hammond) whether in this sense depression can be considered a disorder of time perception, or if error in time perception is a consequence of depression, making it easy to maintain and difficult to escape from…

The Suicidal Mind

The final point I would like to mention concerns perhaps our most distinctive insight into the suicidal mind. During his talk, Professor O’ Connor presented an image of a suicide note on the overhead projector, one of far too many that have been written in our history.

I was struck by three things. First, I couldn’t help but think about how, in what was absolutely the darkest moment of this individuals’ life, he/she probably did not imagine that these final words would be read so openly at a seminar in a room full of academics. Second, it was pointed out to those in attendance that the majority of suicide notes examined to date are all remarkably similar in content. These individuals – their unique and valid places in our society, their distinct personalities, sense of self and personal values – could in a sense be condensed into a predictable template. Troubling as this is might seem, I interpret this as sure evidence that the suicidal mind and the mind that others once knew and fondly remember, are not one of the same kind – perhaps comfort to the family members who too often exclaim how they never could have imagined the person they knew to be capable of committing such an act. Finally, and sadly, the restricted and impaired future thinking that has been highlighted by so many researchers in the field, as well as in Professor O’ Connor’s talk, was as painfully evident as it is in the excerpt shown a few lines previously.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________
A grave and somewhat indulgent blog post methinks, and with the hecticness of postgrad life, it is also an extremely late one!! It goes without saying that continued research in this area is absolutely essential, but I know well that I lack the many competencies that are necessary to devote years of one’s career to researching such a challenging subject, and feel humbled by and grateful for those who do (hats off to fellow UCC PhD researcher @owenjump).

Continuing with the Time is (of) the Essence blog series, the role of time in Professor Julie Turner-Cobb’s talk on stress during childhood is up next! (At the rate I’m going, this may not make an appearance until 2020 :P)

 

Time is (of) the Essence: Prologue

“If time really is that important … then we should be able to outline a significant role for it in pretty much every area of research that involves the study of human beings and complex behaviour…”

One of my favourite things in the entire world is the fact that the word ‘time’ is the most commonly used noun in the English language. Given that time (or the overarching influence of the subjective interpretation and perception of time) is the central focus of my PhD research, this interesting snippet of information always gets me quite excited! The fact that we use the word more often than any other noun in our discourse is convincing evidence of how important the concept is to our individual and collective realities.

As individuals, we navigate our way through our personal development, from infants to old age, monitoring the world around us in units of time. This can exert a profound and pervasive influence on our decision making and behaviour. We are born with neural structures and fine-tuned biological mechanisms that recognise time sequences in milliseconds and seconds, monitor time delays and passing time over minutes and hours, and allow us to reflect on our life experience across days, weeks, months, years and decades. This constant monitoring of time is also shaped by other physiological, situational and psychological factors, like illness (e.g. influenza), body temperature, hurriedness, and affect (both state and trait), all of which influence our recollection of times past, moderate the nature of our imagined futures, and shape our perception of the present timeframe (speeding it up, slowing it down, stretching it, shrinking it, you name it!). Time plays a pivotal role in our communication with others; we intuitively observe the timing of social cues (e.g. arm gestures or eye rolls), allowing us to respond appropriately during our social interactions. We unconsciously monitor the timing of words, syllables and phonemes relative to other words, syllables and phonemes when in conversation, which in turn enables us to comprehend sentence structure and decipher intended meaning. Our subjective experiences and interpretation of time in early life contributes to the development of a core personality dimension, our time perspective (or time attitude). We develop individual attitudes towards time that differ greatly across individuals and the context in which the individual finds him or herself. Thus, we begin define ourselves by our past achievements or mistakes, adopt time attitudes that guide our behaviour in the present, and often vow to work towards better (or perhaps just different) versions of our future selves.

Salvador Dali's 'Persistence of Memory'
Salvador Dali’s ‘Persistence of Memory’

Moving beyond the individual, time as a social construction allows us to function collectively in a shared understanding of what is means when somebody says “good afternoon” or “goodnight”. The hands on the face of the watch around your wrist are in fact tiny indicators of appropriate social etiquette (they tell you when it is time to turn up for work, when you’re late for a dinner date, or when not to call your best friend in the US because according to our time zone classification system, it is 3am in San Francisco). We communicate using a shared understanding of the concept of time as a tangible object (‘sorry, time just got away from me’). We use it as a curative tool in therapeutic settings (‘you need to give yourself time to heal’), and as a powerful outlet for artistic expression; some of the world’s most celebrated works of art, music, literature, cinema and theatre capitalise on cultural time perspectives (Salvador Dali’s ‘Persistence of Memory’, Five for Fighting’s ‘100 Years’, William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 49 ‘Against that time, if ever that time come’, Robert Zemeckis’s ‘Back to the Future’ 1, 2, 3 and 4…). The places we live, the cultures and subcultures we share and identify with exhibit unique time attitudes, time orientations, life paces, and chronemic values. The most impressive of social movements in history are movements which were founded on the basis of a collective disapproval of past societal functioning, instigated on persisting social ferment in the present, and realised through communal efforts to achieve a common, future goal.

I finally found a B2TF DeLoreon!!
I finally found a B2TF DeLoreon!!

We fight against time. Our realities are punctuated with widely (but not universally) recognised time units in which the typical working week consists of five consecutive weekdays followed by two consecutive end of week days, all of which fit neatly into a mnemonic rhyme to conceptualize the passing of finite time (’30 days hath September…’). As a result, we now find ourselves constantly chasing time as an ethereal resource, working against the demanding pressures of society’s clock, wishing that we could pause or rewind. But time, when you think about it, has never really placed any constraints on itself. That recurrent feeling of finite time being on your back, that giant digital clock in your mind always ticking, counting down or racing toward an expiry date, is a socially constructed phenomenon, and it shapes the way you view the world, other people and ultimately, yourself.

It’s true that our brains and our bodies are naturally synchronised to a 24 hour circadian rhythm (a.k.a. our body clock) that is essential to optimal cognitive, psychological, motor and physiological functioning. It’s true that in the physical sciences, time is a scalar quantity that can be used to derive periodic regularities in nature and clock synchronisation, as well as in the development of quantum mechanics and dynamical systems. But, the way we conceptualise time, be it objectively, subjectively, biologically or otherwise, doesn’t negate the fact that it is a core component of human functioning. And further, just because we conceptualise time into discrete categories, doesn’t necessarily denote that each category is mutually exclusive in it’s association with human behavior. The complexity of intra and inter individual functioning across all domains of life is vast and we are still only scratching at the surface in our attempts to untangle and understand it. There is no one simple answer to explain why we think in the ways that we do, why we behave in the ways that we do, or the exact mechanisms by which some people deviate so vastly from ‘normal’ functioning, when others remain firmly on the path of typical, or expected, development. Geneticists have mapped the precise nature of the human genome and seek to identify its specific associations with human phenotypic traits; cognitive neuroscientists explore the neural circuits underlying human cognitive functioning and mental processes, psychoneuroendocrinologists investigate the relationship between human endocrine systems and behaviours associated with physiological stress reactivity/recovery, developmental psychologists take special interest in human psychological functioning at each stage of development, and how/why typical or atypical functioning emerges as we transition through the lifespan; health psychologists pursue an understanding of the environmental, personal or other behavioural factors that determine health behaviours and behaviour change. These are just some examples of the many approaches by which the human being can be prodded and probed. At first glance, one could wonder how a comprehensive understanding of human functioning can be garnered from such disjointedness, but through multidisciplinary research and collaborative effort, we can no doubt advance our scientific study of human biology, development, cognition and behaviour, with special focus on the interaction of our genetics with our social and familial environments to produce our individual phenotypes (i.e. epigenetics). We are a product of a never ending cascade that is genetic endowment + external environment = genome evolution = phenotypic change = altered interaction between the individual and the external environment = genome evolution etc. etc. I believe that the concept of time can and should be considered a common factor throughout this relentless process that begins from the moment of conception and continues right up until the moment in which we draw our final breath. I propose that the experience of time, both yours and mine, is a metaphoric ‘epigenetic’ product, shaped by objective physical time, biological time rhythms, cognitions, developmental processes as well as developmental life stage, environmental stimuli, and social and familial relations. It is my opinion, though, that multifaceted (born from multidisciplinary research) conceptual models of complex human behaviour fail to consider the role of time as an integral component, although a few psychological models allude to and incorporate it into explanatory paradigms of behaviour.

So, to get to the point, the reasoning behind this particular blog post, is to ask: if time really is as important as I believe, then we should be able to outline a significant role for it in pretty much every area of research that involves the study of human beings and complex behaviour (albeit when I say significant, I cannot say it in the statistical sense of the word…yet!). However this, I fear, is a gruelling task given the sheer volume of niche research areas across an immense number of scientific disciplines that involve humans as biological, psychological and social beings. So, I will start small…

Last week was the final instalment of a series of celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the School of Applied Psychology at University College Cork.Blog 8 Image 5

Overall, it was an enjoyable 12 month celebration that consisted of seminars, symposia and scientific engagement. Past and present staff and students of the School, along with some other guests, spent the day listening to and interacting with 9 invited speakers, each of which have contributed enormously to their chosen research areas in psychology, from research on suicidal behaviour and the role of evidence based practice, from the representation of public wellbeing in public policy and the management and treatment of child sex offenders. As I sat there, with nothing but admiration for each speaker and all that they have accomplished in their individual careers, I began to contemplate the role of time, time perspective/time attitude, the time experience and time perception in these completely distinct research fields, as well as the potential direction of causality, and some interesting ideas / hypotheses came to mind. So, over the next few posts, I’ll attempt to outline and discuss a respectable role for time in some of these research areas, that goes beyond anecdotal or far-fetched reasoning, that is realistic, credible and probable.

I’m hoping that each post (including this one) might give rise to some online discussion regarding the points I am putting forward. I am happily inviting comments / opinions (alternative to mine or otherwise) in the hopes of sparking up some more interest and discourse on the role of time in our lives 🙂 

First up next week: Time in Professor Rory O’ Connor’s talk on the psychology of suicidal behaviour.