Varieties of Temporal Experience

by Jonathan P. Strandjord

Jonathan P. Strandjord is Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Spring Green, WI, and a Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University. He is currently researching resources in process philosophy for theological anthropology.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 19-25, Vol. 17, Number 1, Spring 1988. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There is real promise in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism which makes sense of our experience of time and its apparently variable rate.

What, then, is time? I know what it is if no one asks me what it is; but if I want to explain it to someone who has asked me, I find that 1 do not know. (C 277)

Augustine expresses well the bafflement experienced by anyone who reflects on time. It is utterly ordinary, yet exasperatingly difficult to fathom. Indeed, time presents the thinker with so many knotty riddles that one cannot help but be sympathetic with those who declare it unreal.

One of time’s many puzzles is the variable rate of lived time. We do not experience time as flowing equably. Its rate seems alterable in the extreme: time can fly and it can crawl. An hour can seem an eternity when one is in pain. To a bored student (or teacher!) the second hand of a watch can seem to be motionless. On the other hand, an hour -- even a day -- can rush by when one is lost in thought, and after an evening of good conversation with friends, we look at the clock and say, "Where did the time go?" And not only do we experience time as something which can change its rate radically, it can change often. Within one day our experience of time can undergo many variations. Each new activity brings with it an alteration, sometimes small and sometimes great, in the experience of time. In addition to these everyday changes, there is also the apparently universal experience that as the years pass and one grows older, time seems to speed up. Whereas for a small child ten minutes is a long while to have to pay attention, a day stretches out before one as a lifetime and a year is as unfathomable as infinity, for an adult the years begin to rush by at dizzying speed.

This essay is an attempt to make sense of the varieties of temporal experience. My thesis is that the scheme of ideas which is Whitehead’s philosophy of organism provides the resources to frame an acceptable account of the variable rate of "lived time."

But do we not already understand the apparent variability of time? Indeed we do not lack for explanations. Probably the most widely accepted is a psychological one. "Time flies when you’re having fun" is one of the sturdiest commonplaces in the English language. It is indisputably true as a general statement of fact. But it often functions also as an explanation. The hypothesis is that when we are enjoying some activity, we wish time would move slowly or stop altogether and so it seems to fly. On the other hand, when some state of affairs causes us to suffer pain or displeasure, we wish time would rush by and so it seems to crawl. While I do not deny that this explanation has some validity, it is clearly incomplete and inadequate. For not all of our experiences of "slow time" and "fast time" are linked to pleasure and pain. For example, working on this essay has not been particularly "fun." As I work in my carrel, I squirm uncomfortably as I strain to organize my thoughts and attempt to express them clearly. And yet, each time I glance at my watch, I am surprised at how much time has passed. Moreover, who would want to argue that the experience of adults is generally more pleasurable than that of children? And yet that is precisely what this psychological explanation would seem to require.

Another common explanation could be called the full time/empty time hypothesis. This theory is based on the observation that when not much is happening (empty time), time seems to move slowly. This is unquestionably true, as anyone who has missed a plane connection knows. The problem is that "full time" can either creep or fly. The second before a car accident is very full and that moment can seem extraordinarily long. An evening of Mozart is very full and time flies. Moreover, returning to our child/adult contrast, it would seem odd to hold that the experience of childhood is "emptier" than that of later years. This hypothesis may have a piece of the truth but hardly all of it.

Yet another explanation deals explicitly with the contrasting experiences of time in children and adults. One could call this a relativity theory of time experience. This theory explains the fact that time seems to move more slowly to children than to adults in this way: an hour (or any unit of time) is longer relative to the span of time a child has lived. While this theory has a certain immediate appeal and plausibility, closer inspection renders it problematic. For it would require that time experience be a complicated, continuous comparison of contemporary time spans to the whole span of one’s lifetime. Where is the "ruler"? Memory hardly qualifies since we never remember our whole life span and what we do remember is there for us only as pieces and never as one continuum. And even if this hypothesis does have some validity, it is hardly a full explanation of the variability of lived time since both children and adults have experiences of "slow time" and "fast time." Indeed, many elderly nursing home patients in full possession of their faculties experience time as moving with excruciating slowness.

We do not lack for explanations of the variability of time experience but we do lack for one adequate to the richness of the data. That this is the case is hardly surprising because, as we noted at the beginning of this essay, time itself is notoriously puzzling. If one aims at a more satisfactory explanation of the experience of "slow time" and "fast time," one must deal with the fundamental question, "What is time and how do we experience it?"

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism deals explicitly with this fundamental question. William Hammerschmidt has gone so far as to claim that

Between his fortieth and sixty-fourth years (1901 - 1925), Whitehead published but a few important works that were not essentially a discussion of the spatio-temporal structure of nature and related concepts. And in his greatest work, Process and Reality, his treatment of space-time is the core of the metaphysical position he adopts. (WPT 1)

This claim may be exaggerated. It is, after all, difficult to specify the core of a system in which "coherence" means

that the fundamental ideas, in terms of which the scheme is developed, presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless. (PR 3/5)

But it is undeniably true that Whitehead’s treatment of space-time is a key strand, a sine qua non in his web of thought. What then does he say about time?

The first thing to note is that Whitehead insists that time is not an independent actuality. He directly contradicts Newton’s notion of absolute time which "of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without regard to anything external" (MP 77). Whitehead protests that while one may choose to use such a notion as a helpful abstraction, one can treat such absolute time as an actuality equal to all other actualities only at the expense of coherence. Indeed, Newton ends up with a four substance metaphysic (space, time, minds, bodies) which makes Descartes’ problems look like child’s play. For Whitehead, in contrast, time is an abstraction from concrete actual occasions and it has no reality apart from them.1

This may sound like a demotion of time. But what it more than gains in importance in Whitehead’s system. For temporality is not just one feature among others characterizing actual occasions. It is utterly fundamental. The Category of the Ultimate ("the many become one and are increased by one"; "the creative advance into novelty") puts time at the heart of the system.2 Temporality is Whitehead’s solution to the problem of relating the One and the Many.

What is more, by insisting on speaking of time as in actual occasions rather than actual occasions being in time, Whitehead makes it possible to speak of the experience of time. Whitehead holds that time is not simply a theoretical construct or inference; we do in fact experience time. We see this in his discussion of perception in the mode of causal efficacy. Whitehead says of this mode that it

produces percepta which are vague, not to be controlled, heavy with emotion: it produces the sense of derivation from an immediate past, and of passage to an immediate future; a sense of emotional feeling, belonging to oneself in the past, passing into oneself in the present, and passing from oneself in the present towards oneself in the future, a sense of influx of influence from other vaguer presences in the past, localized and yet evading local definition . . . . This is our general sense of existence, as one item among others, in an efficacious actual world. (PR 178/271; italics mine)

Whitehead, of course, is speaking here of our root experience of causality (against Hume). It is at the same time, though, an account of our primitive experience of time -- of sheer temporality, of derivation from the past and passage towards the future.

At first glance, this account of the experience of time as the experience of the temporality of the present may look like a "solipsism of the present moment," especially when we add to this Whitehead’s theory of the atomicity of actual occasions with its epochal theory of time. Since actual occasions do not move, there is no enduring subject which is traveling through time. But we must remember that the experience of the present is in part the experience of derivation. Actual occasions do not simply experience themselves, they experience themselves as systems of relations to past actual occasions. These relations involve the actual occasions with the time which preceded them and therefore in the flow of time.

We can see, then, that Whitehead’s system can give an account of the experience of time. But how does this help us explain our experience of "slow time" and "fast time’? If temporality is the most fundamental character of each and every actual occasion, should we not experience time as flowing equably? To say this, though, is to forget that an actual occasion is, in Whitehead’s system, more than the sum of its relations. Besides having a conformal phase (or "physical pole") in which it inherits, every actual occasion has a supplemental phase (or "mental pole") in which freedom and novelty are real possibilities. Whitehead says of these poles

Every actual entity is "in time" so far as its physical pole is concerned, and is "out of time" so far as its mental pole is concerned. (PR 248/380)

This passage is usually cited in discussions of the epochal theory of time but I believe it also speaks to the experience of time. The conformal phase involves the actual occasion in relations and therefore in time; the supplemental phase does not. The supplemental phase can be trivial (as in the societies of actual occasions that make up atoms) or it can be dominant (as in thought or fantasy). To put it simply, actual occasions are always related to past actual occasions but these relations may be more or less important for present experience. This means that experience may be more or less temporal, more or less "time rich." For an account of experience in which these relations have faded drastically, we can cite Whitehead on percepta in the mode of presentational immediacy:

. . . they are distinct, definite, controllable, apt for immediate enjoyment and with a minimum of reference to past, or to future. (PR 179/271; italics mine)

Now, to speak of conscious human experience in Whiteheadian categories is to speak of a regnant nexus of actual occasions which are enjoying rich supplemental phases. Conscious experience of time is therefore far from a pure experience of temporality (just as it is far from a pure experience of causality). Consciousness is, compared to "lower" forms of experience in the world, relatively "time poor." But it is not utterly devoid of time since derivation (conformal phases) still plays a role. And because consciousness is not a simple phenomenon but admits of differences, of "levels" of consciousness, of more or less complex supplemental phases, our conscious experience can be more or less temporal.

Given this understanding of the nature and experience of time, I will now venture a Whiteheadian account of the phenomenon "slow time"/ "fast time": When the physical pole of the occasions in one’s regnant nexus becomes more dominant than usual, one is more enmeshed in relationships and therefore in time. Time crawls. When, on the other hand, the mental pole becomes more dominant than usual, one is freer from conformation to relationships and therefore from time. Time flies. To paraphrase the cliche quoted earlier in this paper, time flies when your regnant nexus is enjoying especially rich supplemental phases.

With this proposed explanation in hand, let us return to the data, our concrete experiences of "slow time" and "fast time," to check its adequacy. We have noted already that time seems to move slowly when one is in pain. The proposed explanation seems to work very well here. For pain does appear to be experience in which the physical pole is dominant in the occasions of the regnant nexus. Pain is the experience of derivation in the extreme (no one with a burned hand or cracked ribs can take seriously Hume’s doubts about causality). When we turn to boredom, another experience of "slow time," the explanation again seems adequate. But here the physical pole is dominant not because of its unusual strength but because it does not supply the rich and vivid contrasts necessary for a strong mental pole to develop. One could differentiate pain and boredom by saying that in the former, the experience flooding into the present moment is so insistent as to prevent the higher levels of consciousness from emerging while in the latter, experience gives no occasion for those higher levels. In either case, the end result is weak supplemental phases, lower levels of consciousness and "slow time."

Our proposed explanation can also help us make sense of the experience of the general acceleration of time as one grows older. It would seem reasonable to hold that as one grows up, as one’s brain develops and becomes more complex (a process which does not end with physical maturity but continues through life) and as one accumulates a wealth of memory against which one can compare and contrast present experience, the mental poles of the occasions of one’s regnant nexus would become generally stronger. Piaget and others have made us very aware that the mind is not simply there with all its powers at the beginning of life, needing only data on which to work. Rather, the mind develops, following a predictable path from lower to higher abstractions. The experience and thought forms of children are very different from those of adults. It is interesting to note in this regard that much of what Whitehead says of perception in the mode of causal efficacy applies especially well to childhood experience. For whom is it more true than for children that "an inhibition of familiar sensa is very apt to leave us a prey to vague terrors respecting a circumambient world of causal operations" (PR 176/267)? Children experience time as moving slowly because they generally live at a less abstract and complex level of consciousness than do adults.

What, then, can we say about the experience common among the elderly, especially those in nursing homes, that the rate of time seems to slow down radically? In some cases this is due to degeneration of the brain (with the consequent impoverishment of supplemental phases). In other cases, the increasing level of pain and/or boredom inhibits supplemental phases.

The relevance of our proposed explanation to the experience of time rushing by when one is thinking is immediately obvious. For Whitehead, in his attacks on any simple-minded panpsychism or subjective idealism, made clear again and again that thought is a rare thing in the universe and is possible only when actual occasions have very complex supplemental phases. The purer, more abstract and more complicated the thought, the less it is in time.

The situation is more difficult when we turn to another common example of "fast time" -- the experience of pleasure. One might expect, given our proposed explanation, that pleasure would engender the feeling of "slow time." After all, is not pleasure, like pain, primarily an experience of derivation, of inheritance? Isn’t it a case of experience where the physical pole is dominant?

But perhaps the difficulty here is only apparent. For much that we call pleasure is actually the relief or termination of pain. Moreover, pleasurable stimuli function differently than do painful ones. A pleasurable stimulus is typically pleasant only briefly whereas a painful one can remain bothersome for long stretches of time (indeed, for years). The more the "volume" of a painful stimulus increases, the greater the pain, whereas pleasurable stimuli can, with an increase in "volume," cease to be pleasant and can even become painful. Perhaps we can summarize the difference between pleasure and pain thus -- while painful stimuli demand our attention and thus inhibit supplemental phases, pleasurable stimuli are feelings which invite further complex feeling. Indeed, pleasure can be a highly intellectual phenomenon (witness the joy one can take in savoring the intricacies of a fugue or the complex allusions and metaphors of a poem).

Let us turn our attention to yet another example of "slow time"/ "fast time." When I drive somewhere for the first time and then drive there again on another occasion, I have the distinct sensation that the trip is much shorter the second time. Wouldn’t the Whiteheadian explanation here proposed lead us to expect the opposite since during the first trip I am especially alert mentally and during the second I am more relaxed?

Why does repetition change the experience of time? Why, in particular, does it make for "fast time"? Do we not have to turn to the previously discussed psychological explanation (i.e., I am more anxious -- an unpleasant state which I wish would end -- during the first trip) in order to account for this phenomenon? But consider another example of repetition: I purchase a recording of a concerto by C. P. E. Bach, a concerto I have never before heard. When I return home, I listen to this recording and thoroughly enjoy it. Later I play it again and once more relish it, only this time the concerto seems to take less time. It is difficult to see how the psychological explanation could apply here since both playings are pleasurable and on neither occasion am I anxious.

If we turn back to the Whiteheadian explanation proposed above, we can account for both sets of data as long as we remember that degrees of alertness do not measure degrees of consciousness (witness the absent minded professor, "lost in thought"). When one is experiencing something for the first time, one is too busy paying attention to be able to form the most complex supplementary phases. It is repetition with the anticipation it makes possible that frees us from the tyranny of the present and creates the conditions for the highest levels of consciousness. Repetition makes for "fast time" because it gives the mind room to play.

There are, of course, many other examples of the variable rate of lived time. Readers are invited to reflect on their own temporal experiences in order to test further the thesis here proposed. I will conclude my testing in this essay with a hard case -- the extreme "slow time" of dreams.

When I wake with the alarm and shut it off, I sometimes fall immediately back to sleep and enter a dream. In the dream I may set out on a journey across a mountain range only to encounter tremendous difficulties -- my car breaks down; I set out on foot but I find myself caught in a blizzard; I struggle to a cabin where I meet strange folk and have long, convoluted conversations; long hours, even days pass. And then suddenly I am jerked awake by the snooze alarm. A mere ten minutes of clock time have elapsed.

Time experience in dreams may well seem to pose insuperable difficulties for my account of temporal experience. After all, "dream time" is the slowest of all human experiences of time and yet at the same time dreams are highly mental. They occur when a person is in a state of extreme sensory deprivation. In other words, in dreams a person is radically unrelated to the world. Would not our proposed thesis lead us to expect dreams to be "fast time" experiences?

Of utterly key importance here is that we understand Whitehead’ s distinction between the "physical" and the "mental" poles of an occasion. Nothing but confusion results if we simply apply the common meanings of these two terms when we use them in the context of his metaphysic. For Whitehead, the physical and the mental are not two kinds of stuff in the world. Rather, they are two different activities within each actual occasion. The distinction physical/mental does not apply to the contents of experience but rather to the ways contents are experienced. The experience of any actual occasion is "physical" insofar as it is derivative from other actual occasions; it is "mental" insofar as it supplements, shapes and alters that derivative experience. This means that mentality cannot be inherited; it can only be occasioned, for what is "mental" in one occasion becomes "physical" for its successors.

With this clarification made, it is obvious that even though dream experience is highly mental in that it has no immediate cause outside the cranium, it can be understood as very physical in Whitehead’s terms. As long as the occasions of the regnant nexus are primarily inheriting and only weakly supplementing, their experience is predominantly physical. It does not matter from where they receive experience. Whether it be from a chain of occasions originating in the sun, from a chain constituting a memory or from the chain which is the regnant nexus, inheritance is inheritance is inheritance.

Indeed, dreams seem not only to involve "slow time," they are also what I shall call "physical pole heavy." Whitehead’ s description of perception in the mode of causal efficacy already cited seems especially appropriate to dreams. In the Land of Nod there are most certainly "vague presences, doubtfully feared." Here the percepta are "vague, not to be controlled, heavy with emotion." In dreams we are not abstract observers surveying experience dispassionately nor are we like the active fantasizer who constructs a world. Rather, we suffer (in the older, broader sense of the word) experience and usually that experience has an odd, disjointed logic. One could describe a dream in Whiteheadian categories as follows: our regnant nexus "drifts" relatively aimlessly in the non-social nexus which is its environment, inheriting in a more or less random fashion. Its supplemental phases are not utterly trivial, for then it would be unconscious, but they are of a low grade, too low to effectively "steer" the regnant nexus.

Whether or not this description is itself accurate, it seems clear that dreams involve a low form of consciousness.3 Therefore, the fact that they are extreme examples of "slow time" fits with the thesis here proposed, namely, that the more dominant the physical pole of the occasions in one’s regnant nexus, the more enmeshed one is in relationships and thus in time.

This essay has in no way been an exhaustive analysis of all manifestations of "fast time" and "slow time." It has, though, shown the real promise of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to make sense of our experience of time and its apparently variable rate. This is admittedly a very small piece of the puzzle which is human experience. But a philosophy, if it is to earn our trust, must be able to address the "small" as well as the "large" questions. One of the strong attractions of Whitehead’s philosophy is that it can indeed "speak of many things" -- of cabbages as well as kings.



C -- Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: New American Library, 1963.

MP -- Isaac Newton. The Mathematical Principal of Natural Philosophy. Trans. Andrew Motte. New York: Daniel Adee, 1846.

WPT -- William Hammerschmidt. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Time. New York: Penguin, 1961.



1 See David Sipfle, "On the Intelligibility of the Epochal Theory of Time," The Monist, 53, 1969, p. 509; Robert Palter, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p.7.

2 David Mason has pointed out the similarity between Whitehead and Heidegger in their emphasis on temporality. See his article, "Time in Whitehead and Heidegger: Some Comparisons," Process Studies, Vol. 5, No, 2 (Summer, 1975), pp. 83-105.

3 This appears to find confirmation in sleep research which has found that newborn humans spend about eight to nine hours per day in REM sleep whereas adults spend only one to two hours per day in that state. For discussions of the research, see David Cohen, Sleep and Dreaming (New York: Pergamon Press, 1979), pp. 47-54; William Dement, Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep (San Francisco: San Francisco Book Company, 1976). p. 30.