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The Psychology of Time and the Paradox of How Impulsivity and Self-Control Mediate Our Capacity for Presence

“Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time.”

The Psychology of Time and the Paradox of How Impulsivity and Self-Control Mediate 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, from Cartographies of Time

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.


Sylvia Plath Reads “Spinster” in a Rare BBC Recording

A subversive lamentation of how our compulsion for control empties life of love.

In 1957, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) entered several of her poems into an open call for submissions to the celebrated BBC series The Poet’s Voice. They were rejected. She kept trying. In the summer of 1960, exactly a decade after she had extolled writing as salvation for the soul in her beautiful letters to her mother, Plath finally made the cut — two of her new poems were accepted for broadcast. She was soon invited as a regular guest. In the last two and a half years of her life, Plath produced at least 17 known broadcasts for the BBC, which are now collected in The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the terrific archival treasure that gave us Plath’s thoughts on literature and life and her readings of “The Birthday Present,” “The Disquieting Muses,” and “Tulips.”

Among the poems she recorded for the BBC was “Spinster,” found in her Selected Poems (public library). Plath had written it in 1956 — the year of her steamy first encounter with the poet Ted Hughes, whom she would marry that same year and who would become the father of her children.

Plath intended the poem as a satire of obsessiveness and of how our compulsion for control limits our lives — the protagonist is a woman besotted with order who, as Plath explains in her BBC introduction, “would prefer, if she had the choice, a picture or a painting of the sea rather than the sea itself, because she finds motion, untidiness, and chaos too upsetting.” But there is something else the poem emanates, a sort of subversive elegy — at once a celebration of the buoyant autonomy of being single and a lamentation of the anguishing lonesomeness of feeling unworthy of love.


Now this particular girl
During a ceremonious April walk
With her latest suitor
Found herself, of a sudden, intolerably struck
By the birds irregular babel
And the leaves’ litter.

By this tumult afflicted, she
Observed her lover’s gestures unbalance the air,
Her gait stray uneven
Through a rank wilderness of fern and flower.
She judged petals in disarray,
The whole season, sloven.

How she longed for winter then! —
Scrupulously austere in its order
Of white and black
Ice and rock, each sentiment in border,
And heart’s frosty discipline
Exact as a snowflake.

But here — a burgeoning
Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits
Into vulgar motley —
A treason not to be borne. Let idiots
Reel giddy in bedlam spring:
She withdrew neatly.

And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either.

Complement with Keats on the joy of singledom, then revisit Plath on privilege, free will, and what makes us who we are and how her formative job as a farm worker shaped her writing. For more beloved poets performing their work, see Billy Collins reading “Aristotle,” T.S. Eliot reading “Burnt Norton,” Lucille Clifton reading “won’t you celebrate with me,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” and Sarah Kay reading “The Paradox.”


Dostoyevsky on Poverty, Ambition, Success, Creative Integrity, and the Ultimate Ideal of Art

“The artist … must consecrate all his toil to the holy spirit of art — such toil is holy, chaste, and demands single-heartedness.”

Dostoyevsky on Poverty, Ambition, Success, Creative Integrity, and the Ultimate Ideal of Art

“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least,” young Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her best friend from the pit of poverty, long before she became one of humanity’s most celebrated artists. That, perhaps, is part of the definition of an artist — someone equally endowed with the emotional porousness necessary for perceiving life’s deepest dimensions, and with the mental toughness necessary for doing so despite the inconvenience, deprivation, and resistance this might entail.

Hardly any artist has articulated this essential duality of creative work with more moving sincerity than Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881).

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

In 1837, the year his mother died of tuberculosis, teenage Fyodor was sent to a military engineering institute in St. Petersburg. His artistic temperament and physical clumsiness made him poorly suited for the military, but he particularly resented being forced to abandon his study of the humanities, which he felt nourished his soul, for a dry technical career. Life at the military boot camp was hard enough — he slept in a canvas tent even under heavy rain and his bed was a bundle of straw covered in a ragged sheet — but what oppressed him most of all was having no books to read.

Eventually, he swallowed his pride and asked his financially strained father for help. In a letter from May of 1838, found in the altogether terrific Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends (public library) — which also gave us the great Russian author on the heart vs. the mind and how we come to know truth — 16-year-old Dostoyevsky beseeches his father:

How can I pass the time without books? … If you will stand by your son in his bitter need, send him this money by the first of June. I dare not insist upon my petition: I am not asking too much, but my gratitude will be boundless.

What other course in life is there for a person who sees literature as a form of nourishment more vital than food and shelter? This was the dawn of Dostoyevsky’s literary ambition. By that fall, he was already thinking about the question of artistic success, its false relationship with fame, and its proper measure. He writes to his brother:

The poet’s inspiration is increased by success. Byron was an egoist; his longing for fame was petty. But the mere thought that through one’s inspiration there will one day lift itself from the dust to heaven’s heights some noble, beautiful human soul; the thought that those lines over which one has wept are consecrated as by a heavenly rite through one’s inspiration, and that over them the coming generations will weep in echo… that thought, I am convinced, has come to many a poet in the very moment of his highest creative rapture. But the shouting of the mob is empty and vain.

Echoing his contemporary Kierkegaard’s views on popular opinion, young Dostoyevsky adds:

There occur to me those lines of Pushkin, where he describes the mob and the poet:

“So let the foolish crowd, thy work despising, scream,
And spit upon the shrine where burns thy fire supreme,
Let them in childish arrogance thy tripod set a-tremble…”

Wonderful, isn’t it?

Over the years that followed, Dostoyevsky continued to struggle materially and found himself deeply in debt — a predicament he wouldn’t transcend until decades later, thanks to his his brilliant and business-savvy wife Anna.

In a letter form 1844, 23-year-old Dostoyevsky reports unsentimentally that his “position is desperate,” but assures his brother:

As regards my future life, you really need not be anxious. I shall always find means to support myself. I mean to work tremendously hard.

And work he did — that year, he finished his first novel, appropriately titled Poor Folk. “I am extraordinarily pleased with my novel,” Dostoyevsky wrote to his brother, “beside myself with joy.” But while trying to get the manuscript in the hands of the right literary tastemakers, Dostoyevsky grew even more impoverished. In a letter from the spring of 1845, he consoles his brother as much as he consoles himself:

What do I want with fame, when I’m writing for daily bread? I took a desperate resolve — to wait a little longer, and in the meantime incur fresh debts.


And now to those means of subsistence! You know well, dear brother, that I have been thrown on my own resources in that respect. But I have vowed to myself that, however hard it may go with me, I’ll pull myself together, and in no circumstances will I work to order. Work done to order would oppress and blight me. I want each of my efforts to be incontrovertibly good. Just look at Pushkin and Gogol. Both wrote very little, yet both have deserved national memorials. Gogol now gets a thousand roubles a printed page, while Pushkin had, as you know well, as much as a ducat a line of verse. Both — but particularly Gogol — bought their fame at the price of years of dire poverty.

He adds:

I should rather like to write something that would introduce me to the public… If I fail in this, I’ll hang myself.

Art by Shaun Tan for a rare edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

By October of 1845, strained by poverty and the uncertainty of his manuscript’s fate, he has plummeted into despair:

Until now I have had neither time nor spirits to write you anything about my own affairs. Everything was disgusting and hateful, and the whole world seemed a desert. In the first place, I had no money all the time, and was living on credit, which is most unpleasant, my dear and only friend. In the second, I was in that wretched mood wherein one loses all courage, yet does not fall into dull indifference — rather, which is much worse, thinks a great deal too much about one’s self, and rages uncontrollably.

But the stars soon aligned. Poor Folk made its way to Russia’s most influential literary critic, who proclaimed it the country’s first social novel. It was published in January of 1846 and became an instant commercial success. So began Dostoyevsky’s conflicted relationship with fame — he both longed for it as the ultimate gratification of the ego’s ambition and scorned it as a function of the abominable taste of the masses. He relays the charade of fame in a letter to his brother:

Well, brother, I believe that my fame is just now in its fullest flower. Everywhere I meet with the most amazing consideration and enormous interest. I have made the acquaintance of a lot of very important people… Everybody looks upon me as a wonder of the world. If I but open my mouth, the air resounds with what Dostoevsky said, what Dostoevsky means to do.

But his fame — a phenomenon Einstein once derided as fickle buffoonery — brought its invariable companion: the small-spirited bullying that petty jealousy engenders. Dostoyevsky laments to his brother:

“Poor Folk” appeared on the 15th. If you only knew, brother, how bitterly the book has been abused! The criticism in the [newspaper] Illustration was one unbroken tirade… They scold, scold, scold, yet they read it.

Once again, Dostoyevsky comforts himself with the similar fate his great hero endured:

It was the same with Gogol. They abused, abused, but read him. Now they’ve made up that quarrel, and praise him. I’ve thrown a hard bone to the dogs, but let them worry at it — fools! They but add to my fame.

By the following year, Dostoyevsky is famous beyond his wildest imaginings. But among fame’s most challenging facets is its tendency to force one to confront the contrast between the private person and the public persona, only amplifying the shame of one’s perceived personal flaws against the backdrop of public adulation. And so Dostoyevsky — even Dostoyevsky — succumbs to impostor syndrome. After his second novel, The Double, was published and received some negative reviews, he writes to his brother:

My fame has reached its highest point. In the course of two months I have, by my own reckoning, been mentioned five-and-thirty times in different papers. In certain articles I’ve been praised beyond measure, in others with more reserve, and in others, again, frightfully abused. What could I ask for more?


I hear such hymns of praise that I should be ashamed to repeat them. As to myself, I was for some time utterly discouraged. I have one terrible vice: I am unpardonably ambitious and egotistic. The thought that I had disappointed all the hopes set on me, and spoilt what might have been a really significant piece of work, depressed me very heavily. The thought of [The Double] made me sick. I wrote a lot of it too quickly, and in moments of fatigue. The first half is better than the second. Alongside many brilliant passages are others so disgustingly bad that I can’t read them myself. All this put me in a kind of hell for a time; I was actually ill with vexation.

By November of that year, Dostoyevsky had grown disenchanted with the publishing business. In a letter to his brother, he extols the supremacy of creative integrity over commercial success:

From the whole business I have deduced a sage rule. First, the budding author of talent injures himself by having friendly relations with the publishers and proprietors of journals, the consequence of which is that those gentry take liberties and behave shabbily. Moreover, the artist must be independent; and finally, he must consecrate all his toil to the holy spirit of art — such toil is holy, chaste, and demands single-heartedness; my own heart thrills now as never before with all the new imaginings that come to life in my soul.

This renewed faith in the true priorities of art — the devotion to ideals grander and more abiding than fame — reinvigorated Dostoyevsky’s creative spirit and he went on to write some of the greatest, most enduring literature of all time. More than twenty years later, he reflects on the ultimate ideal of art in a letter to his niece:

My whole literary activity has embodied for me but one definite ideal value, but one aim, but one hope… I do not strive for fame and money, but only and solely for the synthesis of my imaginative and literary ideals, which means that before I die I desire to speak out, in some work that shall as far as possible express the whole of what I think.

A century and a half later, Dostoyevsky’s literary imagination continues to speak to our deepest humanity.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly satisfying Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends with Felix Mendelssohn on creative integrity and the measure of artistic satisfaction, then revisit Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people, the story of the day he discovered the meaning of life in a dream, and the secret to his happy marriage.


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