Feeling the Future

In After Temporality, I wrote about the phenomenology of the ordinary, healthy experience of time. I wrote this as an outsider, because my own experience of time is not normal. Here, I focus on the phenomenology of time in psychopathological states (prefrontal brain injury, schizophrenia, mania, and depression). What can breakdowns in the experience of time reveal about how the brain constructs time under ordinary circumstances?

In my previous article, I used the word “chronesthesia” to refer to the sense of time: awareness of one’s past and future, coupled with the ability to do “mental time travel,” assembling appropriate memories and projecting the self into imagined possible futures. This is a rather cognitive and bloodless way to describe an alleged sense. But the psychopathological time experience suggests that the experience of normal time is produced and guided by emotion. We feel the future as much as we think it. The feeling of time is instantiated in our bodies out to our skin, and beyond, in the felt bodies of others with whom we synchronize.

In the phenomenological account, there are two modes of being that are relevant here. The first is the absorbed state: proficiently using tools without awareness of the tools as such. Picture driving a car. One is not aware of the motions of one’s hands and feet, or of the internal workings of the automobile. One is simply absorbed in going someplace, and possibly thinking of other things, or even socializing. The second mode is the breakdown state, initiating conscious awareness of oneself and one’s equipment. The brain “wakes up” to some aspect of the environment, because it has failed to accord with previous unconscious predictions. Imagine the gas pedal stops working and the car slows to a halt. Now one pops out of absorbed state into a state of simply using the car, and becomes aware of the car as a thing (a broken thing).

It is the same with time. In the ordinary case, time is invisible. The experience of time is one of absorption. Only when there is a problem do we become conscious of time, and of ourselves in time.

Four ways to fall out of time

The relationship to the future is the actual relationship to the other.

—Emmanuel Levinas, Die Zeit und der Andere, quoted in Fuchs, Thomas, “Temporality and Psychopathology.”

The ordinary experience of time, the absorbed state in which time is invisible, is what Thomas Fuchs calls “implicit time” or “lived time” (as opposed to explicit time, which is experienced from time to time when breakdown cases prompt updates). In Temporality and Psychopathology, Thomas Fuchs describes two interlinked aspects of the experience of implicit time, one cognitive, the other emotional.

First, implicit time rests on the mental faculty of “basic continuity of consciousness” – weaving together memories of the past with predictions about the future, through the vehicle of the self. Fuchs says:

The mere succession of conscious moments, as such, could not establish the experience of continuity. It is only when these moments mutually relate to each other in a forward and backward directed intention that the sequence of experiences is integrated into a unified process. Husserl called this the synthesis of protention (indeterminate anticipation of what is yet to come), presentation (primal or momentary impression) and retention (retaining what has just been experienced as it slips away).

(Temporality and Psychopathology, p. 77)

The second aspect is what Fuchs calls the “conative” – the emotional energy drawing one into the future, toward certain possibilities and away from others. Healthy conation contains an energetic undercurrent of aliveness and self-affection, perceived as being drawn into the future. Picture a large, happy golden retriever exploring a new park. However, healthy conation is also capable of subtle discrimination: some future courses are felt to be desirable, others repellant. That golden retriever would do well to be less enthusiastic approaching, say, a bear, than approaching another goofy dog. In humans, taking the perspective of others is an important check on what to pursue and what to avoid. Dogs seem to do this too, watching a human or other dog’s body language for cues on how to feel about a situation.

The process of connecting our own experience of time to that of others, which happens naturally and unconsciously, is synchronization. We get into rhythms along with others. In conversation, facial expressions, speech, pauses, and silence are implicitly synchronized. Circadian and weekly rhythms organize time on longer scales. Effective and thoughtless synchronization is the essence of mental health, of normal peopling in this model. Desynchronization – becoming disentangled from others in time, unable to connect socially – appears to be a salient feature many types of mental illness. If “the relationship to the future is the actual relationship to the other,” those who cannot feel the future cannot feel others, and have lost “vital contact” with social reality. Desynchronized people are lost (temporarily or permanently) to the rest of humanity, much in the way that the dead are lost: they are no longer able to connect to others in possible futures.

I have outlined a basic structure of time: implicit (absorbed) and explicit (breakdown); within implicit time, continuity of consciousness and conation (emotional valence of the past and possible futures); and synchronization and desynchronization. This structure forms the basis for four ways of pathologically experiencing time, or “falling out of time.”

Future Insensitivity

First, the conative function can be obliterated by brain damage. Patients with this kind of time experience have normal memory, but do not seem to experience emotions about the future, in the sense that they are insensitive to future consequences. While they often have trouble functioning and make bad decisions, they are not impulsive (see Bechara et al., Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex, 1994). They appear to be insensitive to both punishment and reward, despite being able to understand and articulate consequences.

The authors later investigated the scope of this supposed insensitivity. They used measurements of skin conductance (basically, moment-to-moment sweatiness) to determine whether patients with prefrontal damage experienced autonomic responses to risky future outcomes. Skin conductance measuring devices (sometimes called galvanic skin response or GSR) are extremely fun to play with, and I’m disappointed that they are not widely available as toys, as they are very cheap to produce. Anyway, strapped to these devices, the subjects played a card game in which they turned over successive cards, to reveal a reward or a penalty. In normal controls, penalties triggered autonomic responses, and as more cards were turned over, subjects seemed to autonomically anticipate the risky action of turning a card. Their skin conductance began to spike before each turn. Prefrontal patients, however, had no such response: they were not able to feel the future at all.

This research is not phenomenological, so we don’t get to hear much about prefrontal patients’ self-reported experience of time. But this appears to be a falling out of time precipitated by the failure of the conative function: emotions no longer distinguish imaginary future courses of action, because the future-feeling is itself absent.

In the following two sections, both describing phenomenological studies, the problem is not the absence of future-feeling, but a valenced fixation of future-feeling. The future-feeling is stuck on ecstasy or dread; because of the overwhelming emotional valence, the ego can no longer distinguish small gradations of better or worse futures (or good or bad past memories, in the case of depression). Both fixations cause desynchronization, and prevent authentic social contact, by walling off an aspect of the future (risk, or joy) whose implicit perception underlies the nature of full-contact social reality.

“A catastrophic loss of vital contact with the reality of a risky world”

Wayne Martin has conducted a phenomenological investigation of the experience of time in manic episodes, including interviews with hospitalized subjects (whom he calls “collaborators”) in the grips of mania. (His paper is not yet published as far as I can tell, but you can watch him present a draft of it on youtube). He reports a particular flaw in inductive reasoning about the future of the self. His collaborators are able to report about many past episodes of mania, and give rich detail about their warning signs and the course of the illness. However, they deny being currently manic (even when their own articulated “warning signs” or indications of mania are objectively present), and deny the possibility of future episodes of mania. They are able to sense that some things in the past are bad, but the future presents in a “mood” of ecstatic freedom and openness. The “mood” appears to overwhelm the ability to distinguish good and bad futures with conation: subjectively, only good futures are possible. The manic person has lost a sense: he is blind to risk, to possible harm in the future. And like a blind person, his lack of perception makes him vulnerable. Eventually he will come down and have to live with the actions taken by a self that couldn’t foresee this future.

In not being in full contact with the future, he has only superficial contact with other humans. He cannot really adjust his behavior to accord with social expectations. Desynchronization in mania happens by a speeding-up of personal time in relation to social time (in Fuch’s model, linked above).

“Then this attracts my memories”

The opposite (or near-opposite) case is depression: a negative emotional valence overwhelms the experience of past and future. Depressed people lose the capacity for discrimination of better and worse futures (as in mania), but the misery also acts as a constant “breakdown” case, interrupting implicit, absorbed time over and over with its felt urgency, and ultimately preventing the return to absorbed, implicit time. (See Fuchs, linked above, and also this 2014 paper). Fuchs quotes a patient:

“It comes from below, from the gut, like a terrible oppression rising to the chest; then a pressure arises, like a crime that I have committed. I feel it like a wound on my chest, that is my tortured conscience … then this attracts my memories, and I have to think again of all that I have missed or done wrong in my life…”

(Fuchs 2014, p. 407)

It is normally possible to escape self-awareness in absorption in implicit time. But in depression, absorption is no longer possible, thwarted at every turn by the “breakdown case” of strong negative emotion. Memories may be accessed, and often fly into consciousness unbidden, but both good and bad memories are now reprocessed through the lens of the depressive mood. They are reinterpreted in light of this emotion, and the new, poison copy is the one that is retained in memory. Even if the depressed mood lifts, the memories accessed during that period may be forever emotionally tainted. The mood “attracts” the patient’s “memories” to be reprocessed in turn under this harsh light; the poison spreads itself throughout the temporal experience, eventually trapping the depressed person in the unbearable present moment of un-absorbed conscious awareness.

Projections of the future are treated in a similar manner. Without conative energy, there is no emotional reason to do any particular thing. In order to function, depressed people must substitute conscious willpower for the lost human capacity of implicit enjoyment and desire. Rarely is this possible to a satisfactory degree.

“The one speaking now is the wrong ego”

Similarly, in the case of schizophrenia, the person loses his felt sense of the unified self, and often attempts to cope by doing each behavior explicitly and consciously – a desperate copy of the outward appearance of ordinary peopling, engaged in from a place of confusion and fear:

A 32-year-old patient reports that since he was 16, he has had growing doubts whether his possessions were really the original ones or had been secretly replaced by someone. Whenever some of his possessions moved out of sight, he started to have these doubts. When he went shopping, he suspected that the salesperson had replaced what he had bought with something else while it was being wrapped, and he could therefore no longer use it. When he was studying, if he was inattentive for a moment, he started thinking that the student sitting next to him had replaced his book and he had to throw it away, so that he was constantly buying new books. He was gradually losing “confidence in his environment”. After breaking off his studies at the age of 21, he finally began to doubt whether his own arms or someone else’s were performing some activity. He would trace his arms from the hands to his trunk, fully concentrating on his hands and on the force he exercised in order to feel that he really did have his own arms. Nevertheless, he had to look behind himself repeatedly in order to make sure that no one was standing there and moving them. Now he doubted the simplest activities. Whenever he moved just a little too fast, he had to repeat the movement in order to make sure that it was his own. In the end, he needed an endless amount of time just to get dressed because he repeatedly had to check whether he was holding his clothes properly, whether his trousers fitted well, whether he had put them on himself, etc. Every move had become “like a mathematical problem” for him.

(Temporality and Psychopathology, p. 89)

What the schizophrenic person has lost is the ordinary experience of time, and of the self in time – the “basic continuity of consciousness.” Eagleman explains that even healthy people experience temporal illusions. The brain uses multiple methods to estimate things like time and causality, but these present as a single, unified experience of time due to brain magic. Under laboratory conditions, the brain magic illusion can be revealed as a complex structure vulnerable to error (as in breakdown conditions in phenomenological time).

Stanghellini et al. report that among schizophrenics reporting abnormal time experiences in interviews, the most common was experiencing the world in unconnected snapshots, like a series of photographs. (One subject even repeatedly took photographs of the street beneath his window, so that he could externalize time with evidence that things changed or didn’t change.)

When you fall out of time in this way, you can get lost within a sentence:

“I can concentrate quite well in what people are saying if they talk simply. It’s when they go into long sentences that I lose the meanings. It just becomes a lot of words that I would need to string together to make sense.”

“I have to pick out thoughts and put them together. I can’t control the actual thoughts I want … I think something but I say it differently. … Last time I could not get the words that were correct to make up a sentence …”

(Temporality and Psychopathology, p. 85)

Desynchronization in schizophrenia follows from not being able to piece together snapshots in time as a lived timeline, with implicit feeling of the past and future. Having shown up just now, unable in some cases to sense what was going on five minutes ago, or at the beginning of the sentence now being spoken, the schizophrenic struggles to find purchase on the present, and lacks a foundation for future cognition. In Fuchs’ model, his protention is impaired – the scope and content of his protentive field, unconsciously predicting each moment in normal persons, is limited to a few words or moments. Normal people carry with them an unconscious sense of the immediate past (a few seconds, at least) and this is seamlessly integrated with the biographical past. This provides a foundation for protention, the sense of the future: a projected field predicting likely futures and possible obstacles or rewards that might arise.

The title heading is a quotation from a schizophrenic subject in Fuchs:

“I am not able to feel myself at all. The one speaking now is the wrong ego (…) When I watch television it is even stranger. Even though I see every scene properly, I do not understand the story as a whole. Each scene jumps over into the next, there is no coherence. Time is also running strangely. It falls apart and no longer progresses. There arise only innumerable separate now, now, now— quite crazy and without rules or order. It is the same with myself. From moment to moment, various ‘selves’ arise and disappear entirely at random. There is no connection between my present ego and the one before.”

(Temporality and Psychopathology, p. 84)

Back into time

If you are mentally healthy, I hope that this has brought you into contact with abilities you didn’t even realize you had. If you have mental illness (as I do, under any reasonable reading of the folk concept of mental illness), I hope that this provides a novel way of thinking about normal life, illness, and treatment.

Fuchs (2014) suggests some treatment options that arise from thinking of depression as a temporal disorder: first, treating the underlying mood symptom with drugs (hopefully ones that actually work), and second, “resynchronizing” the depressed person gradually back into social life. I suggest that a novel therapy for those stuck in depressed time might be drugs like zolpidem that induce anterograde amnesia when used in waking subjects (especially in safe social settings). This might break up time that seems otherwise unified and monstrous. The depressed person can’t ruminate over memories that never formed in long-term memory, and gaps in memory might provide relief and hope for the future. Ketamine, a dissociative successfully used to treat severe depression, may operate on the sense of time as much as mood.

People who fall out of time are often able to re-enter time, in remission or intervals of lucidity. However, after falling out of time once, the experience remains – and remains a future possibility. Fuchs remarks, on depression: “Even the explicit memory of a recovery from an earlier depression remains abstract for the patient and does nothing to change the hopelessness of the present situation.” This may seem to be a cognitive error from the outside, but the outside observer is not experiencing time as an eternal painful now. And even after recovery, the reality is that the depressed state will likely recur at some point (and the more times it recurs, the more likely future episodes become). I am not sure that it is always possible to re-enter time. It may be that we need to acknowledge a second kind of life, outside of time, for those who are not capable of living in time. It consists in palliation of the eternal now, rather than plans for the future, like a really horrible version of Zen Buddhism that’s not half as funny, but that is more comfortable than the alternative. The technological and material wealth of modernity could allow a new kind of human zombie to exist, who would have in earlier eras perished by suicide.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. “It is the same with time. In the ordinary case, time is invisible. The experience of time is one of absorption. Only when there is a problem do we become conscious of time, and of ourselves in time.”

    All what differentiates a human’s mental experience from any other human animal (or animal altogether) comes from “a problem”.
    But at the same time, it is an extra chance.
    Destiny strikes harder those it has chosen?
    I mean, you start thinking (“reflecting”) when you start observing (= constructing YOUR imagined account of events, starting from your own life story, extending to the outer reality, instead of taking on the socially-prepared accounts) when you have a problem.

    You discover your soul (or start inventing it… if it’s a narrative invention of your mind) when you have a problem.

    I imagine the perfectly healthy human animal as a egg, whose ego can only move within the surface, the outer shell.
    When there is a “problem”, there is a creak in the egg. And things never before imagined by the subject’s ego itself pop out.
    And then, most try to suture the opening, or at any rate say “it’s nothing, hey people, I am all like you, just a beautiful egg with no lines on my surface, it’s all shell, come see, I am normal!”, cry it out, every time their attention falls on the outage.

    Others become insane, that is… dive inside the egg’s matter. The white part… that, you still don’t have schizophrenia. You are a sage, one who thinks, one who meditates.
    Some fall into the yolk. They are the ones who may never be back, independent of their volition.
    It’s possible to decide to be a resident of the white part, but that’s a choice (insofar as we actually make choices, that is…).

    Society, mainstream culture, and normal relations and relationships alike are about egg surfaces, shells.
    Humans have a wordless horror of their own white and yellow substances… from the point of view of an egg-inside dweller, they look hard to understand.

    The egg’s inside is the soul.
    There’s no time in the soul. No time in dreams.
    Frankly (and I’d like a piece on the subject by you, why not?) I can’t even recall color being there in dreams.
    And then, if all our conceptions of time are fabrications… may mortality be one such as well?

    The question turns ontological quite quickly.

  2. > “And even after recovery, the reality is that the depressed state will likely recur at some point (and the more times it recurs, the more likely future episodes become).”

    This reminds me of Elizabeth Svoboda’s article “The kindled brain”(https://aeon.co/essays/should-the-kindling-concept-direct-mental-health-treatment) which addresses her experience with depression and its recurrences.

  3. glad to have found your work, my sense is that most people don’t register all the gaps, missed connections, and other breakdowns that regularly occur in daily activities, and so the future seems like more of the same, no need for re-habit-uation or reflection.
    cheers, dirk

  4. Interesting piece. Will be reading more on the topics covered. Thomas Bernhard’s book “Woodcutters” is a perfect example of rumination and souring of memories in the face of what is clearly depression and anxiety. It’s funny but also accurate in it’s idiosyncratic rhythm – constant repeating itself and unable to imagine a future; lost in time because of the same social disconnection.

  5. You’re a smart guy. Read Rajiv Malhotra and get back to me.

  6. How are you relating the sense of time at the micro and macro levels? That is, moment-to-moment sense of time and one’s sense of future? The relation doesn’t seem obvious to me.

    Also, how do you account for advanced meditators who claim to have an altered sense of moment-to-moment time and, nonetheless, claim to be compassionate, fulfilled, etc?