• Grace McMahon

How we think the time and its impact on our wellbeing

Time is a basic concept of our mind, we could not think about anything without thinking it within a time framework. Time is the flow of our experiences, one after another, is our perception of the things that change; our memory could not have sense without a sense of time, as well as our ability to think about future events.

What would our life be without a shared thinking of time?

Our days are beaten by the ticking of our clocks, by diaries, calendars, deadlines and time tables. Time is an essential tool to regulate and organise our lives.


From ancient times humans have found routines in the natural world and used them to regulate the time of our lives: apparent movements of sun during the day, apparent movements of stars in the sky above us.


Measuring time in an objective way has become essential to regulate relationships between humans - just think about making an appointment without having a shared time measurement system! We can say that the way we are used to thinking about time is shaped by our culture. Something like 4th of March, 2022, 4.11 pm would not make any sense outside the framework we use to think about time. The hour 4.11 pm would not even have the same natural sunlight reference if we look out of the window in winter or in summer at the same hour - it is something conventional that we need to understand each other.


“The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic; the passions that we feel expand it, those that we inspire contract it; and habit fills up what remains.” Marcel Proust

But the way we feel the time is different.

Our subjective perception of time is something completely different. No need to say that “time flies” when we have fun, while it seems to last forever when we are entrapped in a boring situation. When we are within a flow state, such as when we are reading an engaging book, are captured by the new episode of our favourite series, or are immersed in a challenging video game, we don’t even have a perception of the time that is passing. On the contrary, when we are waiting for or looking forward to something, every second that passes has its own weight.


This is because our brain has its own clock, and does not care what our bedside alarms, watches or timetables at the train station may say. Our brain has its own way of measuring time.


Our brain’s timekeepers

We have different inner clocks, as our brain has different ways to process the time. One of these clocks is the circadian clock (which you’ve likely heard The Sleep Geek talking about) working on a daily basis to regulate the cycle of our sleep, eating, digestion and hormonal activity.


There are also different neural systems specialised in different functions of time measurement. These allow for our conscious awareness of time passage, such as estimation of duration and temporal expectation. This includes 2 specific brain areas, the cerebellum and hippocampus, which play an important role in determining our memory.


Ultimately, memory is our sense for the passage of time, allowing us to remember what happened in the past and use this information to make anticipations about the future.


“All time past is forced to move on by the incoming future; all the future follows from the past; and all, past and future, is created and issues out of that which is forever present.” Augustine of Hippo

Always stretched between past and future, can our mind actually think about the present?

There’s a lot to be said for focusing on the present when it comes to helping us manage stress and anxiety - and after the past few years, you may be well familiarised with grounding techniques, deep breathing and maybe even meditation - being able to stay in the moment, despite uncertainty about the future or dwelling on past experiences helps to reduce stress, anxiety and low mood. But if our brains are wired to flick between the past and future how difficult is it to try to be present?


The Default Mode Network (DMN), a network of brain areas responsible for our mental states of restful wake, such as mind wandering and daydreaming, plays a large role in thinking the time. The DMN is responsible for continuous monitoring of duration, as well as autobiographical memory and envisioning of future. Meditation and mindfulness practices are known to reduce the activity of the DMN. This suggests focusing in the now could actually be achieved by reducing our sense of time passing on a neural level.

So, essentially, this means for anyone who’s tried and felt like they’ve failed at meditation or mindfulness - the ability to pay attention to present experiences without distractions or judgements - it’s totally normal. Most of us in fact will naturally find this hard. But practice improves our ability each time. Practice builds habit and we gradually find it easier to get into the present zone, and overtime we might find that we naturally find ourselves there without having to try so hard.


Time to think: time’s a funny old thing, especially our subjective perception of it. Perhaps you’ve been frustrated and put off by mindfulness, meditation or even just focusing on right now. Perhaps you’ve ruled it out as ‘not for you’ (as many of us likely have), but this is your sign to give it another chance. Be bad at it, build up practice and recognise those small changes in the habit and how you feel when you are in the present zone.