Time is weird. The alleged dimension of time has been under investigation by the physics police on charges of relativity weirdness and quantum weirdness. The math is hard, but you can see it in the ominous glint in the eyes of physicists who have had a couple of drinks.
But subjective time is even more suspicious. Each observer possesses detailed and privileged access to a single entity’s experience of time (his own); however, this does not guarantee the ability to perceive one’s perceptions of time accurately, so as to report about it to the self or others. Access to the time perception of others is mediated by language and clever experimental designs. Unfortunately, the language of time is a zone of overload and squirrelly equivocation. Vyvyan Evans (2004) counts eight distinct meanings of the English noun “time,” each with different grammatical properties. Time can be a countable noun (“it happened three times”) or a mass noun (“some time ago”); agentic time (“time heals all wounds”) behaves like a proper noun, refusing definite and indefinite articles.
Perhaps we will get some purchase with chronesthesia, since Greek classical compounds are well-known for injecting rigor into the wayward vernacular. Chronesthesia is the sense of time – specifically, the ability to mentally project oneself into the future and the past, as in memory, planning, and fantasy (Tulving, 2002). It is sometimes called mental time travel. But already there is weirdness: why should the “time sense” be concerned with the imaginary, rather than the perception of time as it is actually experienced (duration, sequentiality, causality)?
Linear temporality (time as a sequential series of experiences) and chronesthesia (time as many simulations of past and future) are not conflicting models. Rather, they are deeply interlocking models that constantly construct each other. They are both illusions, though the way in which they are illusions is different. However, they are both highly functional, and the ways in which they are functional are complementary.
The Fabula of Linear Temporality
In folklore, the fabula is a stripped-down version of the events of a story in chronological order – a sort of minimal timeline of just the facts. This is in contrast to the way that the story is told (syuzhet), which may be nonlinear and told from the perspective of many characters, including unreliable narrators. Fabula corresponds to linear, sequential time; syuzhet corresponds to the chronesthetic experience.
Consider the fabula of the grocery store. You walk into the store and take a basket. Then you pick up items around the store and put them into the basket. Then you walk to the cashier, wait in line, and transfer your items to the checkout counter. The items are bagged; you pay for them, and carry them away.
This is a perfectly useful conception of grocery shopping. It functions as a script to help us use the grocery store, and it is articulable to others, in case we have some kind of grocery-store-related problem that we need to seek help with (e.g., is haggling permitted?).
The hidden side of the grocery store is that it is a zone of private fantasy and mental time travel. Perhaps there is a particular dish that you want to make. You imagine making the dish and the ingredients that go into it, informed by memories of past cooking experiences and recipe texts. You try to match what is desired to what is available. Products themselves may trigger memories and desires. Cupcakes? Raw kale? You may reach for fresh Brussels sprouts motivated by a fantasy of your future self eating roasted Brussels sprouts; you may draw your hand back, remembering that you let the last batch go bad; you may buy them anyway, thinking, “this time.” If they go bad anyway, then in a sense, your purchase was not of Brussels sprouts as food, but of Brussels sprouts as a scaffolding for a particular self-fantasy. Weird time threatens the thingness of things.
Now. Here you are at the cashier. You may rehearse the interaction, wonder if you will have to bag your own groceries, remember the times when cashiers made the joke of pretending to charge you for the cold bags you carry with you. Should you prepare a polite laugh? And then it’s over, and in a month you might not remember it at all. The experience will be folded into the grocery store script in long-term memory, if any trace of it remains.
I think it’s interesting how much mental time travel is involved in crushingly mundane activities. As I became a better cook, I noticed that when I got a food idea (a new dish or way of cooking), I would spend a great deal of time mentally simulating the process of slicing, sautéing, whisking, sprinkling, baking. The future simulations “reach back” into memory, collating scraps of memories of ingredient, flavor, and technique into a new whole. Mental simulations are rarely smooth: they hit obstacles that must be worked around, and particular segments must be re-simulated repeatedly. The fabula of a “recipe” reflects only a small portion of the reality of cooking. But it is a very useful condensation, providing a scaffolding for chronesthetic experience. And it is very easy to communicate.
Linear timelines or scripts, along with memories in a richer sense, provide the basis for mental time travel. But linear timelines must themselves be abstracted (or extracted) from actual chronesthetic experience. Linear timelines are not simply available to perception; they must be constructed, with effort, out of the raw chronesthetic experience. The consensus social experience of time and the private experience of time mutually build each other.
Deeply Interlocking Time
“Deep Interlock and Ambiguity” is one of Christopher Alexander’s (2002) fundamental properties. Multiple elements “hook into” or grip each other, meeting in a zone of ambiguity that doesn’t clearly belong to either element. For example, a building surrounded by an arcade or gallery (in the architectural sense) deeply interlocks interior and exterior, meeting in a zone of ambiguity that is neither outdoors nor indoors. The shapes created by the columns of the arcade and the shapes created out of the space enclosed by the arcade seem to grip each other. The building becomes less separate from its surroundings.
Deep interlock can occur in ornaments, as in this detail of tile-work and brick, from the Tabriz Mosque (Alexander, 2002, at p. 198). The apricot-colored brick boundary has hook-shaped extensions that interlock with the botanical designs within and without, so that the black interior is deeply gripped. The hooks form spade shapes in each corner, in addition to having their own strong shape. All elements support each other; there is no separation, despite the fact that there is a strong boundary.
Time is deeply interlocking in this way: fingers reach into the past and the future, uniting in the zone of ambiguity formed by the chronesthetic being. Present experience takes its shape from flights into simulated future and past. The future takes its shape in part from the contents of simulated futures.
Interestingly, there is evidence that remembering the past and imagining the future are not opposites, but expressions of a unified underlying capacity. Imagining past and future events seem to light up the same brain areas, and people with deficits in imagining the past (amnesia) tend to also have deficits in imagining and planning for the future (Schacter et al., 2008). Thus we can talk about constructing the past and “remembering” the future.
Mental time travel to the future, or simulation, can be modeled as iterations on game theory problems, as in the Keynesian beauty contest. In the “guess 2/3 of the average” game, participants each choose a number between 0 and 100, inclusive; the object is to choose a number that is 2/3 of the average of the guesses of all participants.
A naive player might choose at random. Or he might observe that the maximum correct answer is 66 (if everyone chose 100). So, he thinks, everyone will guess below 66. If they do so at random, the correct answer would be around 34. So, iterating again, he thinks, everyone else knows this, so everyone will guess 34. In that case, the correct answer is about 21. The iteration continues down to the Nash equilibrium of 0. Extremely simplified simulations of the future, repeated – and, I should include, projecting those simulations onto the minds of other players – reveal a dominant strategy.
Unfortunately, when games like this are played in real life (including more complex forms, such as poker), it is not the case that everyone plays the dominant strategy. 0 is usually incorrect in groups of real humans; they are more likely to average closer to 21. This is because real humans don’t iterate perfectly – and because humans know that other humans don’t iterate perfectly. Only if the answer to the game were common knowledge among the group would choosing zero be the correct answer.
The process of life – even simple life – reproducing itself in the course of evolution is analogous to game theory iteration, with similar results. The times at which migratory birds lay their eggs is a function of the history of thousands of generations of successful clutches. Organisms are a “best guess” at what will survive, reproduce, and flow into the future. Chronesthetic beings are a best guess at how to make best guesses.
There is some debate as to whether humans are the only species that imagines itself backwards and forwards in time. Nonlinguistic animals cannot report their experiences; however, scientists working tirelessly to annoy corvids and rats (among others) have produced some evidence of mental time travel in animals (Schacter et al., 2008). Corvids, such as scrub jays, cache food of varying perishability for months-long storage. Their ability to cache and relocate food speaks to a time sense – and they are apparently savvy enough to re-cache food in secret if another jay catches them caching the first time. The rat method is more invasive. Rats run mazes with electrodes sticking out of their brains, connected to particular neurons associated with places in the maze. These neurons seem to fire in the correct order during rat dreams, as if the rats were rehearsing in a sort of dream training camp. When running a familiar maze while awake, the place neurons fire before the rats arrive at the associated place, as if the rat were imagining the future course of events.
We just don’t know. But it’s premature to say that time is only deeply interlocked in human minds. It may be that simulation is a very old tool.
Phylogenetically, we find ourselves after temporality in the sequential sense; we are past or beyond the experience of time as a sequential series of moments and sense impressions.
Simulations, however, seem to have a strong relationship to events that actually occur on the consensus timeline. Some simulations seem to be about planning (as in simulating the interaction with a cashier at a grocery store). Other simulations seem to be a form of pleasurable escape, as in sexual fantasy or self-aggrandizing imaginings. People experiencing severe mental pain (as in depression) seem to fall out of time or get stuck in time; they demonstrate a reduced capacity to vividly imagine future (or even past) scenarios (Schacter et al., 2008). Time itself becomes poisoned by affect; the pleasure of reaching out and deeply interlocking with future and past is lost.
In the case of planning-type simulations judged to be positive, we are after temporality in that we seek after making these simulations come true on the consensus timeline. Relaxing notions of agency, we might say that the fantasies themselves are after temporality, auditioning to become real. It is not clear how intentional mental time travel is; a good portion of it can be classified as mind-wandering (Stawarczyk et al., 2011). The future and past can spring up to us, seemingly unbidden. Of course, there is no guarantee that a pleasing mental simulation will translate into a pleasing timeline reality.
The signs and symbols of language form a scaffolding for collective mental time travel, as in political/religious narratives of transformation and salvation. Common knowledge is powerful, as we have seen. Signs and symbols especially seem to be after temporality, in the sense of seeking to become real in the consensus timeline. The tactic of semiocide – “a situation in which signs and stories that are significant for someone are destroyed because of someone else’s malevolence or carelessness, thereby stealing a part of the former’s identity (Puura 2013)” – can shape both simulated and temporal futures. Fantasy colonized reality long ago. The war for the future plays out in the realm of fantasy and sign, as well as brick and blood.
Alexander, C. 2002. The phenomenon of life: The nature of order, book 1. Berkeley: Center for Environmental Structure.
Evans, V. 2004. How we conceptualise time: Language, meaning and temporal cognition. Essays in Arts and Sciences 33:13-44.
Puura, I., 2013. Nature in our memory. Sign Systems Studies 41:1:150-153.
Schacter, D.L., Addis, D.R. and Buckner, R.L., 2008. Episodic simulation of future events. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124:1:39-60.
Stawarczyk, D., Majerus, S., Maj, M., Van der Linden, M. and D’Argembeau, A., 2011. Mind-wandering: phenomenology and function as assessed with a novel experience sampling method. Acta psychologica, 136:3:370-381.
Tulving, E. 2002. Chronesthesia: Conscious awareness of subjective time. In D.T. Stuss & R.C. Knight (Eds.), Principles of frontal lobe function (pp. 311–325). New York: Oxford University Press.