[Time perceptions and representations]

S Tordjman
L'Encéphale 2015, 41 (4 Suppl 1): S1-14
Representations of time and time measurements depend on subjective constructs that vary according to changes in our concepts, beliefs, societal needs and technical advances. Similarly, the past, the future and the present are subjective representations that depend on each individual's psychic time and biological time. Therefore, there is no single, one-size-fits-all time for everyone, but rather a different, subjective time for each individual. We need to acknowledge the existence of different inter-individual times but also intra-individual times, to which different functions and different rhythms are attached, depending on the system of reference. However, the construction of these time perceptions and representations is influenced by objective factors (physiological, physical and cognitive) related to neuroscience which will be presented and discussed in this article. Thus, studying representation and perception of time lies at the crossroads between neuroscience, human sciences and philosophy. Furthermore, it is possible to identify several constants among the many and various representations of time and their corresponding measures, regardless of the system of time reference. These include the notion of movements repeated in a stable rhythmic pattern involving the recurrence of the same interval of time, which enables us to define units of time of equal and invariable duration. This rhythmicity is also found at a physiological level and contributes through circadian rhythms, in particular the melatonin rhythm, to the existence of a biological time. Alterations of temporality in mental disorders will be also discussed in this article illustrated by certain developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders. In particular, the hypothesis will be developed that children with autism would need to create discontinuity out of continuity through stereotyped behaviors and/or interests. This discontinuity repeated at regular intervals could have been fundamentally lacking in their physiological development due to possibly altered circadian rhythms, including arhythmy and asynchrony. Time measurement, based on the repetition of discontinuity at regular intervals, involves also a spatial representation. It is our own trajectory through space-time, and thus our own motion, including the physiological process of aging, that affords us a representation of the passing of time, just as the countryside seems to be moving past us when we travel in a vehicle. Chinese and Indian societies actually have circular representations of time, and linear representations of time and its trajectory through space-time are currently a feature of Western societies. Circular time is collective time, and its metaphysical representations go beyond the life of a single individual, referring to the cyclical, or at least nonlinear, nature of time. Linear time is individual time, in that it refers to the scale of a person's lifetime, and it is physically represented by an arrow flying ineluctably from the past to the future. An intermediate concept can be proposed that acknowledges the existence of linear time involving various arrows of time corresponding to different lifespans (human, animal, plant, planet lifespans, etc.). In fact, the very notion of time would depend on the trajectory of each arrow of time, like shooting stars in the sky with different trajectory lengths which would define different time scales. The time scale of these various lifespans are very different (for example, a few decades for humans and a few days or hours for insects). It would not make sense to try to understand the passage of time experienced by an insect which may live only a few hours based on a human time scale. One hour in an insect's life cannot be compared to one experienced by a human. Yet again, it appears that there is a coexistence of different clocks based here on different lifespans. Finally, the evolution of our society focused on the present moment and choosing the cesium atom as the international reference unit of time measurement (cesium has a transition frequency of 9.192.631.77000 oscillations per second), will be questioned. We can consider that focusing on the present moment, in particular on instantaneity rather than infinity, prevents us from facing our own finitude. In conclusion, the question is raised that the current representation of time might be a means of managing our fear of death, giving us the illusion of controlling the uncontrollable, in particular the passage of time, and a means of avoiding to represent what many regard as non-representable, namely our own demise.

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