How do mentally ill people experience time?

Orientation in time is normal and presupposed by almost any social interaction. We do not need to have a clock in order to know what time it is now – we may simply “tell the time” by relating our personal now with any external physical process (be it a movement of the hand of a watch or of the sun on the horizon). On the other hand, temporal disorientation might be a sign of a mental disorder – just think of dementia, in which a person gets lost regarding a given hour, a day, or even a year. Yet, disorientation in time is just one of the many abnormal temporal experiences that humans can suffer from. Others include acceleration of the temporal flow (as in mania), temporal retardation (as in melancholia), desynchronization with the environment (as in addictions), repetitive behaviors (as in compulsions) or temporal fragmentation (as in schizophrenia). In all of them, the question of the qualitative relationship between the three dimensions of time – past, present and future – and the temporal structure of consciousness itself as underpinning any human experience comes to the fore. It is also here that we encounter the limits of a physicalist conception of homogenous time (as represented by the clock, in which every minute lasts exactly as long as any other) and need to think more in terms of time being lived through our engagement with the world and other people. For example, one can experience one’s personal future as being pre-determined and controlled by alien forces, or one can live one’s past in the mode of constant and painful regret. One can even suffer from a total blockage of the temporal flow, despite the fact that the clock is still ticking and, apparently, objective time passes without any interruption.

My research aims at mapping all those different abnormal temporal experiences from the so-called phenomenological perspective, which involves focusing on the very structures of the first-person experience, cutting across existing classifications of mental disorders and avoiding neurobiological explanations. The trouble is of course that we are unable to experience time as such – rather, time is presupposed in any kind of experience, and we can only perceive it (and possibly quantify) in its objectified form. Given the variety of disorders and methodologies applied in studying temporal experiences (ranging from neurocognitive and psychophysiological to ethnographic and speculative philosophical), my goal is to reduce the territory of these experiences to a map that is phenomenological in nature, and that may help us to orient ourselves in this (still largely unknown) land. I am especially interested whether pathological experiences of time, present across detached categories of mental disorders, may provide ground for uniting them on a more ontological basis. It is also worthwhile to think to what extent knowledge regarding abnormal experiences of time may be applied not only to understanding of psychopathological phenomena but also to their treatment. Such a therapeutic potential has been already recognized, most famously in the case of alcohol dependence (24 hours principle), post-traumatic stress disorder (time perspective therapy) and depression (resynchronization therapy), yet its full-fledged prospects have not yet been realized and applied.

About the Author

Marcin_MoskalewiczMarcin Moskalewicz, PhD, is a historian and philosopher of science interested in health care application of hermeneutic phenomenology and existential philosophy, a tradition that is regrettably fading away from our scientific worldview that treats human beings as machines rather than purposeful and responsible actors. Currently Dr. Moskalewicz is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford, and a Senior Member of Christ Church College; he also holds a part-time position at the Department of Social Sciences at Poznan University of Medical Sciences in Poland, and is a board member of the Warsaw based Res Publica Foundation, which works towards a more democratic and inclusive civil society in Poland. His daughter, Tosia, is too young to be able to tell the time, but she already is a master of synchronizing with the environment.

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