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Zen and psychological time

The Zen and the relativity of inner time: hints for a scientific
Remus Titiriga, PhD
INHA University,
South Korea
This paper is an updated version of an article presented at the Conference of Zen Culture,
Huangmei, Hubei Province, China, December 15-16, 2012, and published in a collective
volume conference.
The paper examines the relativity of psychological time (inner time or time perception), which refers to the sense
of time, which can not be directly perceived but must be reconstructed by the brain. Psychological time is linked
to physical time but might disconnect from it in certain situations. This disconnection is what makes the inner
time relative and forms the object of the analysis.
In the first part of the paper, we examine the relativity or dilatation of psychological time, which accompany the
crossing of particular levels or thresholds in brain activity. Such points are related to age, extreme emotions
associated with sudden dangers, inner states (such as dreams), near-death experiences, trance, or 'mystical states'.
Based on the scientific literature's arguments and experiments, we build our analytical frame to such phenomena.
In the final part of the paper, we interpret and explain the speed up or 'dilatation' of the psychological time in
crossing the mentioned thresholds. Our explanation considers that such 'dilatation' is linked to the brain's more
and more inner activity, which let it approach functioning to its full (quasi-infinite) 'processing speed'.
The (quasi-infinite) 'processing speed' is a metaphor for the brain's hyper-connected architecture, which allows
quasi-infinite parallel mental processes to happen in the same physical time. There is a narrative covering all
cognitive processes. Unfolding this narrative would take a quasi-infinite time in the physical world. Hence a
second (Now) equal Eternity through the mediation of psychological time.
Keywords: Zen, Brain and Cognition, Psychological Time Perception, Psychological Time,
Inner Time-Consciousness
Zen and “Now” as time
Alan Watts, in his famous book1 said that time is a hallucination, so there is only today, and
there will never be anything except today. In the so-called "awakening to the instant" in Zen,
''we can see that past and future cannot be infinite but that the reverse is the truth'' - "it is rather
the past and future which are the fleeting illusions, and the present which is eternally real"2.
In the following pages, we will unveil, in a step by step approach, the truth domain of this
Zen intuition with arguments taken from the scientific literature about time perception (inner
1. Levels of time perception
From a modern science perspective, we can identify the psychological time as linked but
essentially different from the physical time.
The psychological time (inner time or time perception) is “…a field of study within
psychology and neuroscience. It refers to the sense of time, which differs from other senses
since time cannot be directly perceived but must be reconstructed by the brain. Humans can
perceive relatively short periods of time, in the order of milliseconds, and also duration that are
a significant fraction of a lifetime. Human perception of duration is subjective and variable”3.
The physical time of everyday life or physical science is measured by mechanisms moving
in circles or repeating the same regular movements.
Psychological time is linked to physical time but might disconnect from it in certain
situations. There are levels or thresholds where the separation is increasing: time perception
related to age, time perception in extreme emotions associated with sudden dangers, time
perception in inner states (such as dreams), in the near-death experience, in a trance, or
'mystical states.'
A) The first level of time perception disjunction from physical time is related to the lifelong
pathway (aging)
Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen, Vintage, 1989, 256 p.
Václav Petr has an interesting discussion of the subject at http://www.mprinstitute.org/vaclav/Zen2.htm.
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_perception.
A child's day from 09h00 to 15h30 is like a 20-hour day for an adult, according to Steve
Taylor, the author of the book Making Time4. He developed the idea based on the perceptual
theory of the American psychologist William James. The psychological time would relate to
how much "information" one is taking in from the world. "Children are experiencing
everything for the first time, all their experiences are new. They also have an amazingly intense
vision of the world, an amazing fresh perception. Children are incredibly awake to the world
around us, so time passes slowly for them."5
“One day to an eleven-year-old would be approximately 1/4,000 of their life, while one day
to a 55-year-old would be approximately 1/20,000 of their life. This is perhaps why a day
would appear much longer to a young child than to an adult. In an experiment comparing a
group of subjects aged between 19 and 24 and a group between 60 and 80 asked to estimate
when they thought 3 minutes had passed, it was found that the younger group's estimate was on
average 3 minutes and 3 seconds. In comparison, the older group averaged 3 minutes and 40
seconds, indicating a change in the perception of time with age”6.
B) At another level, the disjunction relates to the experience of dangerous, frightening
One can shift out of ordinary consciousness during accidents or dangerous situations, and
people who experienced them often say that time slowed down (a slow-motion perception).
This "slow-motion perception" is the feeling of things seen as moving slowly7.
To a bystander, time is moving on average speed, but for the individual concerned by a
danger, time seems to slow down, making him able to think and act faster.
I have personal experience of this kind. Some 20 years ago, a hooligans group attacked a
friend of mine and me. They have approached us from behind. I turned my head, and I just saw
a punch coming to my face. In that fraction of a second, I had time to think about my next
reaction. I was wondering whether to take or eschew the hit. I decided to take it and lessen in
this way, the angry mood of the aggressor. I also had time to choose not to lie down and avoid
Cf. Steve Taylor, Making Time, Icon Books Ltd, 256 p.
.Such a shift to 'slow motion' can also be achieved by top sportsmen. George Best and former basketball player
Michael Jordan are among those to have remarked on how time seemed to slow down when they were "in the
zone. Cf: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow_Motion_Perception.
being hit with the feet. From that moment on, I become aware of the psychological time
dilatation linked to dangerous situations8.
A traditional model is trying to explain this dilatation in time perception. When there is an
accident or unexpected event, the brain focuses more on information processing, and its rate of
activity will go up. Since this rate increase, the brain perceives a longer time due to amassed
information in the interval.
But are we processing more information in the seconds when time seems to expand? Is the
brain like a slow-motion camera in sports that can identify more details of high-speed actions?
An experiment by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, investigated this last hypothesis by
making the participants free fall onto a net to mimic a frightening situation. Eagleman wanted
to find for how long the subjects thought they were experiencing the fall. He used a hand-held
device (a wrist-device displaying random numbers at different rates) to measure visual
perception speed.
He found no evidence of increased temporal resolution (in visual perception), in apparent
conflict with the fact that participants retrospectively estimated their fall to last 36% longer
than in physical time. Hence, Eagleman considered that time-slowing was a recollection
function, not a perception one: a richer encoding of memory may cause a spectacular event to
appear, retrospectively, as lasting longer.9
One can criticize the arrangement since the wrist-device was not essential in the coping
strategy of the falling subjects10.
See http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-03/how-time-flies, where the contributor BSTUR1 wrote a
plastic description of a similar occurrence: "I had an experience once during a situation of realizing that another
vehicle and my car were on a probable collision course, and in a few seconds my mind raced through a learning
sequence from drivers education course, better to hit glancing blow than hit head-on, aim to the right of the
oncoming car, better to hit a stationary object than one coming towards you, so I aimed the car towards the
shoulder of the road to miss the approaching vehicle.
Then I looked to see a telephone pole on the side of the road and decided that I would instead hit the
vehicle causing the accident than hit the telephone pole, so I aimed a little to the left of the pole and to the right of
the advancing car, which was crossing the road in front of me.
I threaded that needle, missing the car and the pole by inches, all in the space of a few seconds and a
couple of hundred feet of the snow-covered road. If I had even just tapped the brakes, I would have slid straight
into the oncoming car.
That experience made me realized that what happens is that your mind races through your life
experiences do a data dump, so to speak of your memories, searching for a solution to survive the life-threatening
It is your brain's last-ditch effort to save your life. So it isn't necessarily slowing down its perception of
time. It is massively speeding up its ability to process memories and make split-milli-second decisions to find a
solution to save your life. It is a survival mechanism".
Stetson C, Fiesta MP, Eagleman D.M. (2007) Does Time Really Slow Down during a Frightening Event? PLoS
ONE 2(12): e1295. ydoi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001295
See, for example, shotgun, 04/14/10 at 2:41 pm on the site http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-03/howtime-flies who considers the experiment as flawed: "It would seem to me, that if you're falling 15 stories, your
brain isn't going to devote that extra processing power to a blinking wristwatch while you're plummeting. I would
On the other hand, one can question the relevance of the experiment for the inner time. The
perception rate (the brain's external activity) did not change under stress, but the (inner) brain
activity indeed changed. The internal perception time slowed considerably to allow the subjects
to react.
C) Another level of disjunction is related to time perception in dreams
I had a significant time perception experience during my military service in a night and day
shift watch. There were 4 hours watch, 4 hours of pause, and 4 hours of sleep. After some days
of following this cycle, I was utterly exhausted. When I was able to reach the bed, I fall asleep
I remember that once I was examining my thoughts while I started laying my head on the
pillow (for less than a second). There was an incredible kaleidoscope of images flowing
through my mind. And then, the dream came like a speed train (with no passing period from
the wake-up state to sleep). For me, it was obvious that the brain was working 'inside' at an
incredible speed.
Exciting elements relate to time perception in dreams. When our body sleeps, the time in
dreams can last longer than the duration of sleep. That can even create an inner perception of
time that lasts weeks or even months.
For example, some time ago, Schjelderup studied hypnotically induced dreams. He
acknowledged in a series of experiences that long spans of real time might be represented in
dreams of short duration11.
More recently, Anthony Peake wrote in his book, "Is there life after death?"12 about
"Mary's Dream," where a student entered a 2-hour trance and relived, in minute-by-minute
details, 20 years of memories (from the age of 6 to 26).
The privileged way to directly analyze such a phenomenon is through introspection (which
needs the subject's conscious activity). Therefore the time perception in dreams is accessible
through lucid dreams (dreams where the sleeping person is aware of dreaming).
think it would actually distract from it. It seems to me, a much better test would be to place the lights on the
Schjelderup, H. K. “Time relations in dreams. A preliminary note”, Scand. J. Psychol., 1960, I, 6-64.
Anthony Peake "Is There Life After Death? The Extraordinary Science Of What Happens When We Die.”
Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2006.
For example, a subject describes his lucid dream time perception: "The longest period of
time I remember experiencing during a dream occurred within a 30 minute nap where in the
dream state I was consciously aware I was dreaming and just allowed the dream to continue.
The passage of time spanned into what felt like two weeks of conscious dreaming. I have had
others spanning what seemed like a week and some spanning days”13.
Another way for investigating time perception in lucid dreaming is by experimental method
(external experience).
Stephen LaBerge14 studied the time differences between the dream and the real world.
Since in REM sleep, the subject's eyes are moving the same way that the dream eyes are
moving, he gave the dreamers an eye movement pattern that they had to do once they became
lucid. Afterwards, they had to count to 10 and then make the pattern again.
After reviewing the eye movements, the pattern showed up and then showed up 10 seconds
later, so the dream time was equal to that of the real world. LaBerge explained that the dreams
seem very long because many time skips are overlooked15 .
There is an apparent collision between the interpretation according to the introspection
method and the external experiment.
I have a critical position regarding the evaluation provided by LaBerge. He measured a
slow lucid dream–in the context of a slowing down induced by the experience of moving the
eyes both in the real world and in the inner dream state (hence the real world with its
constraints was inevitably present).
According to our understanding, when the brain connects to the outer world, it will slow
down (at the attention-conscious level) to the speed of the processes of the physical world (the
inner time is not purely internal here, and the brain adapts to constraints and the pace of real
A rough analogy with computers might be useful. While controlling a natural process, a
super-computer must slow down to its external driver's speed (a printer, for example). The
See that story at http://you-are-dreaming.blogspot.kr/2010/07/dreaming-century-of-time-during-one.html.
Mentioned at http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/Articles/si91ld.html.
In a discussion at http://www.dreamviews.com/f12/finding-out-real-time-dreams-115166/, Delwind is quoting
from Exploring the world of lucid dreaming of Stephen LaBerge: “You may be wondering, then, how you could
have a dream that seems to last for years or lifetimes. I believe this effect is achieved in dreams by the same stage
trick that causes the illusion of the passage of time in the movies or theater. If, on screen, stage, or dream, we see
someone turning out the light as the clock strikes midnight, and after a few moments of darkness, we see him
turning off an alarm as the bright morning sun shines through the window, we'll accept (pretend, without being
aware that we are pretending) that many hours have passed even though we "know" it was only a few seconds”.
brain is doing that regularly because it should be in phase with sensory organs, the body, and
the world.
There is a speed limit of such organs, nervous flux, etc. They function slowly. The brain
will process with high priority the most important (for survival) external process. However,
that does not mean that the brain has the same inner 'speed.'
D) Further disjunction of time perception in the near-death experiences
A typical near-death experience (NDE) occurs if a person is exposed suddenly to death's
threat but then survives. There are reports of four consecutive phases, such as floating out of
his/her body, hurrying through dark, empty space, having a life review, and encountering a
brilliant white light. Among these phases, the third one, the life review, is the most interesting
For obvious ethical reasons, the only way of investigating the time perception in such
situations is by introspection or anamnesis16.
E) Time perception and mystical experience
In high states (mystical states), the inner time becomes, metaphorically, Simultaneity and
Eternity: "I woke up in a whole different world... I didn't experience time, time of the outer
space and aeons until the second phase of this dream. In the cosmic flow of time you saw
worlds coming into existence, blooming like flowers, actually existing and then disappearing.
It was an endless game. If you looked back into the past, you saw aeons, if you looked forward
into the future there were aeons stretching into Eternity, and Eternity was contained in the
point of the present. One was situated in a state of being in which the “will-be” and the
“vanishing” were already included, and this “being” was my consciousness. It contained it all.
This “being-contained” was presented very vividly in a geometric way in form of circles of
different size which again were all part of a unity since all of the circles formed exactly one
"After all this banging and going through this long, dark place, all of my childhood thoughts, my whole entire
life was there at the end of this tunnel, just flashing in front of me. It was not exactly in terms of pictures, more in
the form of thoughts, I guess. It was just all there at once, I mean, not one thing at a time, blinking on and off, but
it was everything, everything at one time...”. Cf. Moody, R., Life After Life, Mockingbird Books, Atlanta, 1975,
pp. 69–70.
circle. The biggest circle was part of the smallest one and vice versa. As far as the differences
of size are concerned, I could not give any accurate information later on...”17.
The subject speaks about the puzzling equivalence between Eternity and the moment of the
present (now). That seems to be a significant property of such states since a famous mystic
such as St. Thomas mentioned it 18: “Eternity is called “whole” not because it has parts, but
because it is wanting in nothing... The expression “simultaneously whole” is used to remove
the idea of time, and the word “perfect” to exclude the now of time... The now that stands still
is said to make Eternity...”.
The Western mystic is rejoining the Zen masters with the idea that 'Now' is becoming
2. An interpretation and tentative explanation
The slowing down, increasingly, of the psychological time in the experiences mentioned
above, is linked to brain activity.
The brain knows much more than it is aware of (its conscious activity is reduced compared
to the unconscious one). For example, we memorize without being aware of almost anything
that happens in our life. The best proof is the photographic memory of patients who sort out
from long comas and remember all around them during their unconsciousness. Also, we know
a lot today about the photographic memory of 'idiot savants.' In reality, such phenomena seem
to happen under the threshold of conscience. The brain is building-up (based on this exhaustive
memory) its world.
The speed of the biological process is limited, and there is a limitation linked to the pace of
happenings in the outer, physical world. When focusing on the external world, the brain
functions (at least a the conscious level) at this low speed.
As the brain focuses, more and more, on its inner world (as slow-motion in dangerous
situations), there is no (or a reduced) control of the body or motility. Therefore more energy
and brainpower are accessible. There is also a reduced connection to the outer world since the
focus is on the immediate danger.
See Metod Saniga, Geometry of psychological time, pp 6, paper to be found at
http://www.scribd.com/doc/6458438/GEOMETRY-OF-PSYCHOLOGICAL-TIME. I highly recommend it as the
best description of time perceptions in high states.
Mentioned by Coomaraswamy, A.K. Time and Eternity, Atribus Asiae Publishers, Ascona, 1947, p. 110.
In the next highest states (dreaming, near-death, or mystical states), the brain is in a purely
inner mode and can function at its full 'complexity' and connectivity' potential considered as
The organisms, the living beings, are part of a ‘middle world’ of infinite complexities 19 in
between two other infinities: small infinity-the word of elementary particles and the great
infinity-the world of astronomy (galaxies, stars, planets, etc.). In this sense, any life form is an
infinity that can reflect both the small and the vast infinity. Any living cell (as a neuron) is of
infinite complexity. A multi-cellular organism, an organ, is an even more complex system. The
brain is a 'square infinitely' complex (hyper-connected) system of infinitely complex cells (the
The brain acts at the physical level, with inherent speed limitations (there are limits for the
nervous influx speed, biological reactions, etc.). However, because of its infinite complexity as
hyper-connectivity (a single neuron can interact with 10.0000 other neurons) build upon the
additional complexity (of the neurons) the brain attain what can be qualified as quasi-infinite
'processing speed.'
When it is functioning in a straight inner mode, with almost no connection to the outer
world (as in the terminal states, in meditation, in deep dreams, in a trance, and 'mystical
states'), the brain is in its realm. The mental processes function in a hyper-parallel way and
attain their potential of quasi-infinite speed.
In a second of clockwork time, the brain will 'process' in parallel trillions of images, states,
feelings, ideas. Within the real world, what might take a second of physical time (the Now)
will take in the inner world (the realm of Spirit, or more precisely, of purely internal
psychological time) an Eternity.
Hence, one can finally understand the equivalence intuited by Zen masters.
Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon, Brighton: Sussex Academic, 1999.