We are curious about time. It holds us in a state of wonder, of anticipation for the future. The ability to categorise the past - history - and think about the future - planning - is a basic element of intelligence.
The literature on time and temporality is vast. It spans the fields of consciousness to cosmology. Between the time of our lives and the time of the universe is a panorama of temporal meanings, experiences and practices. Within these, our unique temporal identities shape the way we think about and experience time.
Anyone who has entertained a small child knows that we all experience time in different ways. We each have different temporal signatures that inform not only the way we perceive time, but the way we use time.
Time is not simply something that happens to us. We imagine it, organise it, allocate it, kill it and make it. We can guard it jealously or allow others to dictate what we do with our time. These are not just metaphors, but explain how we manage our most precious and finite resource.
The way we individually perceive time can be called our “time signatures”. Our signatures are a combination of progression, patterns and perspectives:
progression captures our experiences of the flow, rhythm and tempo of time
patterns include typologies of time and our orientation towards the modes of the past, present and future.
perspectives include our time horizons and the importance or value we attach to different textures of time.
You’re a time-creative
The character Dunbar in the novel Catch-22 constantly fears his own death. He knows he has a finite amount of time, so he tries to live in a state of total boredom. It makes perfect sense: everyone knows that time seems to slow when you’re bored. Joseph Heller was satirising something we all instinctively know to be true.
Focusing on the present, or anticipating the future, to speed or slow our perception of time are both “temporal practices”.
Our age, experience and perspective (all things that make up our temporal signature) also shape the temporal practices we bring to our individual and collective adventures and the ways we use time.
We use time to reason about the way things may actually be; we use time to imagine the ways things could have been; and we use time to anticipate the ways things may be.
The time traveller’s memory
Our temporal signatures and repertoires are windows to time. They are windows to the past and also the future. One of our most important temporal repertoires is our capacity for mental time travel.
The ability to move through time to re-experience past events and pre-experience potential events is referred to as “mental time travel”.
There are similarities between memory and future thinking for these “felt” experiences; both have short time horizons, are abbreviated versions of the equivalent “real time’ event” and fMRI scans show both tap into similar activation spaces within the brain. These brain sites are also associated with some of our higher cognitive functions.
We can choose to include information about possible futures in these imaginings. Have a go:
Think of an important celebration in about ten years’ time. Let’s pretend small mobile projectors are able to produce holographic images of people who would otherwise not be able to be present. Think about how this has changed the celebration - for example, how have social norms changed?
Take a breath, then close your eyes, imagine the scene and let it play out for a moment (or more). Hopefully you were able to generate a small experience of a possible future. Perhaps you learnt something unexpected from the experience. Many factors affect your ability to create such an experience - for example, how relaxed you are.
Instinct and intuition in imagination
Futurists who use extended methods similar to this find participants have experiences that show aspects of the future which we may not capture through rational thinking.
Cognitive neuroscience is starting to show how these methods might be refined to activate different neurological capabilities to refine our experiences. Elsewhere, other studies show that the quality of mental time travel experience may be linked to aspects of personality and measures of time perspective.
Deliberately changing our perspective on time may open up the way in which we think about the past and the future. A recent symposium on time invited futurists, change-makers, poets, scientists, artists and makers to consider shifting perspectives on time.
Our individual perspective is not the only one, or even the most reliable. Our brains capture only a fraction of a moment compared with a skilled time-lapse photographer. We can see how neighbourhoods of the past influence our relationship to place, or how ideas like evolution continue to evolve as our knowledge grows and is tested.
Mentally shifting the way we think about time can shift fixed conceptions of the future, allowing us to imagine broader possibilities and new ways of solving problems.
The actions of someone who believes they will soon die can be very different to someone who believes they have all the time in the world. Someone else who believes they have a hopeless future might not plan for better things and therefore ironically might never attain them.
Creating memories of the future has also been shown to link to taking action in the future. Perhaps, as understanding develops further, we will find ways to better connect the future we want with our actions.
Gareth Priday of Action Foresight is a co-author of this article.