One of the many paradoxes of being human is that we experience time as a highly flexible and subjective experience, yet we have spent considerable time and effort trying to objectify and pin it down. The latter is an understanding of time as a linear trajectory which cannot go backwards and in Stephen Hawking’s terms “The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.” The ancient Egyptians used simple sundials and as early as 1,500BC divided the day from sunrise to sunset into twelve parts. Today a clock is an assumed function on any mobile phone. What are the implications of this for our work?
Time as a Subjective Experience
As we get older time seems to go faster especially as we compare it to the endless days of childhood. Neuroscientist Aditi Subramaniam explains that ‘Time perception, the subjective sense of how long an event or interval lasts, is influenced by several factors, including attention, emotion, memory, expectation, and context’, which varies from person to person and situation to situation. One explanation is that as we age the speed at which we process information slows meaning there are fewer mental images for each passing second. We also know that the way we estimate time changes as we age and that the mental shortcuts or heuristics alter. Children tend to think that more exciting events last longer while adults who engage in sampling heuristics by checking their watch during activities estimate that boring activities are longer. Time is a key variable in how we understand the world.
Time and Therapy
Time as a construct important in therapy has attracted little attention, yet it permeates our work. Perceptions of events and experiences is central to work with couples and families where we encounter very different recall of the same history and subsequent meaning attached to this. Children may recall an argument as having gone ‘on and on’ while parents dismiss it as short and minor.
For some family members time past and the consequences of difficult events lives on to become a major constraint to daily living and relationships. They find themselves captured by a version of the past that may not be understood or shared by others who also participated and may be key players in the narrative. Struggles about what ’really happened’ only deepen the fracture and prevent resolution.
Some clients are so captured by the past that we witness a return to the young person they were as time literally turns backwards as they relieve a past trauma.
Time and Bower(method)
Bower(method) designates time as one of its four meta-frames for understanding and addressing human difficulties through a systemic lens. Time incorporates both time past, the key events which have shaped the current system and symptom, time present, how it is currently lived and time future, that which is expected or anticipated. Robinson (2023) understands symptoms as holding an individual, family and their world in a timeless place which dissolves the future. A key task of therapy is the re-invention of time.
Time is a central construct that shapes our world inside and out. Its time we took it a little more seriously!
In TS Eliots Poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock he ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’