“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”
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!)
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 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…
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.
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.
“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!”
“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”
“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”
“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”
“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”
“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.”
“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)
“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)
“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).