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The Marginalian

The Psychology of Time and How the Interplay of Spontaneity and Self-Control Mediates Our Capacity for Presence

The Psychology of Time and How the Interplay of Spontaneity and Self-Control Mediates Our Capacity for Presence

“Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life,” Kafka once told a teenage friend. “It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky believed that what draws us to film is the gift of time — “time lost or spent or not yet had.” From the moment we are born to the moment we take our last breath, we battle with reality under the knell of this constant awareness that we are either winning or losing time. We long for what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” but in chasing after it we spin ourselves into a perpetual restlessness, losing the very thing we strive to win. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard captured this perfectly in his superb 1932 meditation on our paradoxical experience of time: “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.”

These multiple and contradictory dimensions of time is what German psychologist Marc Wittmann explores in Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time (public library) — a fascinating inquiry into how our subjective experience of time’s passage shapes everything from our emotional memory to our sense of self. Bridging disciplines as wide-ranging as neuroscience and philosophy, Wittmann examines questions of consciousness, identity, happiness, boredom, money, and aging, exposing the centrality of time in each of them. What emerges is the disorienting sense that time isn’t something which happens to us — rather, we are time.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

One of Wittmann’s most pause-giving points has to do with how temporality mediates the mind-body problem. He writes:

Presence means becoming aware of a physical and psychic self that is temporally extended. To be self-conscious is to recognize oneself as something that persists through time and is embodied.

In a sense, time is a construction of our consciousness. Two generations after Hannah Arendt observed in her brilliant meditation on time that “it is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Wittmann writes:

Self-consciousness — achieving awareness of one’s own self — emerges on the basis of temporally enduring perception of bodily states that are tied to neural activity in the brain’s insular lobe. The self and time prove to be especially present in boredom. They go missing in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, which results from the acceleration of social processes. Through mindfulness and emotional control, the tempo of life that we experience can be reduced, and we can regain time for ourselves and others.

Perception necessarily encompasses the individual who is doing the perceiving. It is I who perceives. This might seem self-evident. Perception of myself, my ego, occurs naturally when I consider myself. I “feel” and think about myself. But who is the subject if I am the object of my own attention? When I observe myself, after all, I become the object of observation. Clearly, this intangibility of the subject as a subject — and not an object — poses a philosophical problem: as soon as I observe myself, I have already become the object of my observation.

With an eye to his compatriot Martin Heidegger, whose philosophy equated self and time (and who happened to have been Arendt’s onetime lover and lifelong friend), Wittmann adds:

As phenomenological philosophy has determined, self-consciousness is not a mental state that is added on to our experience, or that is particular; rather, it is a feature inherent in all experience. My perception contains me.


On the phenomenal level, consciousness — and the self-consciousness deriving from it — is distinguished by spatial and temporal presence. Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

From this intertwining of self and time arises the most pernicious consequence of our productivity-entranced culture and the chronic busyness in which it engulfs us. Nearly two centuries after Kierkegaard lamented our greatest source of unhappiness“Of all ridiculous things,” the Danish philosopher wrote, “the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.” — Wittmann observes the effects of today’s social and technological acceleration on our inner lives:

If one has no time, one has also lost oneself. Distracted by the obligations of everyday activities, we are no longer aware of ourselves… Everything is done all at once, faster and faster, yet no personal balance or meaning can be found. This implies the loss of contact with one’s own self. We also no longer feel “at home” with ourselves and find it difficult to persist in any given activity because we are available at every moment.

But if free will exists at all, this is an instance of its most necessary application — it falls upon us, in our daily choices, to seek an antidote to this mindless trance of doing in a mindful state of being. Two millennia after Seneca’s acutely timely treatise on how to extend the shortness of life by living wide rather than long, Wittmann examines the psychology of expanding our experience of time:

In order to feel that one’s life is flowing more slowly — and fully — one might seek out new situations over and over to have novel experiences that, because of their emotional value, are retained by memory over the long term. Greater variety makes a given period of life expand in retrospect. Life passes more slowly. If one challenges oneself consistently, it pays off, over the years, as the feeling of having lived fully — and, most importantly, of having lived for a long time.

What contributes to this perception of fullness, Wittmann notes, is the storage of memory — the more memories we encode in a given period of time, the longer and fuller it will appear. But this raises an intriguing question about what we may be relinquishing as we increasingly outsource our memory to photographs stored in our disembodied digital memory. We vacate the moment in order to document it (and share that record), then end up remembering the photograph rather than the experience itself. Four decades before smartphones and Instagram, Italo Calvino captured this with brilliant poignancy in contemplating photography and the art of presence: “The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.” This compulsive commemoration consumes a great deal of our lives today and sustains entire business models.

And yet we need not lose heart. Wittmann points to one mediating factor that can help us better inhabit our own memories — the cultivation of emotional attentiveness to the moment:

Events are subject to more frequent and more detailed recollection when they are connected with feelings. In general, we can say that events are stored because they are charged with a certain level of affect. Alternatively, the episodes in our lives that we remember depend on the feelings we associate with them. The greater the store of lived experience — that is, the more emotional coloration and variety one’s life has — the longer one’s lifetime seems, subjectively.

Radiating from this is one of the greatest perplexities of how we experience time — the paradox of self-control and impulsivity, mediated by our temporal myopia. Although self-restraint in the service of a future payoff is one of the hallmarks of our species — lizards, say, don’t plan for the future — and learning to wait is central to how children develop self-reliance, none of this comes easily to us. In fact, the very duration of waiting diminishes our perceived satisfaction of the payoff — a phenomenon known as temporal discounting.

Wittmann cites one study that offers tangible substantiation for the “time is money” adage: Participants are asked whether they would rather receive a small amount of money right now or a greater sum at some point in the future; their choice is determined by the variation in waiting time. Those offered $1 today or $50 next week tend to choose the latter, since the time is short enough and the monetary difference substantial enough to justify the wait; those offered $45 today or $50 next week tend to choose the former, since the $5 difference is hardly worth the wait.

By varying these differences, psychologists were able to discern the tipping point past which people aren’t willing to wait — around $20. That is, amounts over $20 triggered participants’ preference for instant gratification. But this is where psychological differences come in. For impulsive people, that barrier of instant gratification tends to be lower — they’ll settle for a lesser amount if they can have the money right now. Wittmann writes:

Impulsive people will accept lesser sums of money, whatever the waiting time involved, so they do not have to wait. With more impulsive subjects, the value of $50 decreases more sharply because of the waiting period. One may affirm that more impulsive people’s experience of time — that is, the way they imagine it — is subjectively longer; that is why they opt for immediate payment, even when sums are lower. Such behavior exemplifies one definition of impulsivity: immediate, positive gain is valued more highly, despite the long-term consequences. This understanding of impulsivity also matches behavior displayed by children and adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This group, like impulsive people in general, shows a greater tendency not to value deferred gratification; such individuals content themselves with lesser sums so they do not need to wait. Thus, impulsive people display greater temporal myopia.


These tendencies, Wittmann points out, are a function of our individual temporal orientation — each of us weighs the past, present, and future differently, and makes decisions accordingly. (“On how one orients himself to the moment,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the art of living, “depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”) Wittman writes:

Studies have demonstrated the ways that a person’s temporal orientation affects everyday behavior. People who are unambiguously present-oriented, for example, stand out insofar as they live relatively dangerously: they tend to take more drugs, get more speeding tickets, have more unprotected sex, and so on. It sounds like the motto of rock stars in the sixties: “Live fast, love hard, die young.” The attitude toward life expressed in these words is surely to be understood as a reaction to the future-orientation that otherwise prevailed at the time, as a perceived lack of spontaneity and lust for life. “Sensation-seeking” — pursuing distraction and new experiences — is related to both impulsiveness and present-orientedness, even if it is not quite the same thing as either. That said, orientation in the present proves essential for achieving a positive quality of life… This perspective acquires a negative quality only when it becomes too pronounced and the individual in question loses the capacity to act freely inasmuch as she or he cannot break out of the present moment and plan for the future.

Indeed, lest we forget, all polarities are inherently limiting — a balanced life, Wittmann notes, requires both impulsivity and self-control. The great French artist Eugène Delacroix intuited this when he wrote in his diary two centuries ago: “I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now.” Wittmann offers a psychological substantiation:

People who meticulously pay attention to every entry in their calendars and are largely trapped by the future perspective — those who are always working toward a goal — forgo opportunities for experience. Time that is felt and lived, that is, a life rich in positive experiences, is made up of moments of fulfillment, often in the company of good friends or a beloved partner. Therefore, whether one lives out the moment or pursues gain over the long term is a matter of emotionally intelligent conduct and weighing decisions. Someone who is free and full of life does not always choose to delay gratification; rather, she or he is smart about when to seek enjoyment and when to wait.

In the remainder of the immensely insightful Felt Time, translated by Erik Butler, Wittmann goes on to explore the temporal dimension of emotional control, the crucial difference between our prospective and retrospective judgments of time, and how we can use the psychology of time to our advantage in extending and expanding our experience of life. Complement it with Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, Rebecca Goldstein on how Einstein and Gödel shaped our experience of it, and Sarah Manguso on the ongoingness of life.

Published April 27, 2016




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