The Meaning We Give to Time

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:03

British Psychological Society - Psychotherapy Section

Conference to Celebrate the Life and Work of Phil Salmon
28th June 2003

Dorothy Rowe

The Meaning We Give to Time

It’s a great pleasure to be here today to help Phil celebrate her seventieth birthday. I first met Phil in 1968 not long after I had arrived in England when I went to a summer conference at York University organised by Don Bannister to introduce many of us to a new theory of behaviour, namely George Kelly’s personal construct theory. There I met the Gang of Four, Don Bannister, Fay Fransella, Miller Mair, and Phil, four people who were going to have a great influence on my life.

Phil and I went on meeting at PCP conferences, but one time that I remember well was at the International Conference on PCP that was held in Holland. On our afternoon off Phil and I went to visit friends of mine who lived in a village some miles away. Phil and I were very proud of the way we managed to find our way there using public transport. It was such fun I entertained the idea that Phil and I might do some further travel together, but shortly after the conference Phil went to a summer school for painting where she met the most marvellous man who proceeded to charm and entrance her for many years to come.

Meanwhile I was exploring the possibilities that personal construct theory afforded me. Up till when I discovered personal construct theory all the theories I had studied - various learning theories, behaviourism, personality factor theory - had nothing to do with how people actually behaved. The most popular model for a human being has always been that of a puppet on strings manipulated by some force over which the person has no control - conditioning, or an inherited trait, or some mental disorder, or instincts, or genes, or biochemistry, or, in popular belief, the planets. Of course the person who uses such a model is not himself a puppet. It’s just other people who are always manipulated by some intrinsic or external force. Such a model is popular because it gives the person who uses it the illusion of being powerful because he is an expert and other people aren’t. The reason that personal construct theory has never become the leading theory in psychology is because it does not use the model of the puppet. Rather, the person is seen as an agent, interpreting the world in an idiosyncratic way, making choices and decisions. Personal construct theory is the ultimate democracy, and democracy is dangerous to those who would be powerful.

The basic premise of personal construct theory is that what determines our behaviour is not to what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epictatus said. ‘It is not things in themselves that trouble us but our opinion of things.’ Neuroscientists have now shown that Epictatus was right. Constructed as we are, we are not capable of seeing reality directly. What we perceive is not what’s there but the picture that our brain has created as a guess about what is there. The pictures that our brain creates can come from only one place - our past experience. Since no two people ever have the same experience, no two people ever see anything in exactly the same way.

Unfortunately most people, even the ones who regard themselves as being tremendously well educated, grow up not understanding this. Small children know that adults don’t see things in the same way that they do. They know that their parents have different view from them of the pleasure and interest of, say, smearing jam over all available surfaces. However, most children lose this understanding because, in the process of learning how to be good, children discover that their way of seeing things is wrong and their parents’ way of seeing things is right. This way of thinking is impressed on children by punishment and humiliation. Consequently most people grow up believing that there is one absolute, correct truth, and if they think differently then they are at fault. They must change their perceptions and see the world as all right-thinking people do.

Thus many people grow up believing that the world really is the way they see it, and that they really are the way they see themselves. If we believe this then we suffer because we soon discover that the world refuses to conform to our expectations. If we try to force the world to conform to our expectations we suffer and we cause other people to suffer. We can try to use physical force on other people, as is happening in Israel and Palestine, or we can tell ourselves that the world ought to be what we want it to be, and thus alternate between denying that the world is not conforming to our wishes and feeling aggrieved because the world has not conformed to our wishes. Some people live their lives like this and succeed in making themselves and the people around them very unhappy, and some people, wishing to deny the loss they have suffered, become depressed. As Alice Miller said, depression is the refusal to grieve.

Consequently the first part of therapy needs to consist of the therapist seeking to learn how the client sees himself and his world. The second part needs to consist of helping the client understand that he has created his view of himself and his world and that he is free to change these interpretations.

Clients are usually very reluctant to accept this. There is a certain security in feeling sure that the world is a dangerous place, that other people are untrustworthy and that you are in essence bad and unacceptable. By acknowledging your wickedness you show that you are striving to be good, and you know as an absolute truth that you live in the Just World where good people are rewarded and bad people punished. You might feel resentful that the rewards you deserve have been denied, and you might live in fear of the deserved punishment that is coming your way as night follows day, but at least you have the comfort of certainty. You have failed to notice that a totally secure world is a world devoid of hope and freedom, the two necessary conditions for a tolerable life.

Those people who believe that the world is exactly as they see it are also likely to believe that as they perceive themselves is absolutely fixed and that they are incapable of change. They’ve inherited their bad temper and tendency to depression just as they inherited the colour of their eyes. They are unaware that what we call ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘myself’ - that is, our sense of being a person - is actually a set of meanings, indeed the structure formed by all the meanings they have created throughout their life. Actually what I just said isn’t correct. There’s no little you sitting inside your head creating meaning. It’s your meaning structure that creates meaning. You are your meaning structure. Your meaning structure is you.

I arrived at this understanding of what constitutes our sense of being a person from the way in my work with clients I came to see how all the constructs created by an individual connect to one another to form a meaning structure. In the 1990s I began to encounter work by neuroscientists on how neural connections were formed when an animal learns something. However, all the neuroscientists I was able to read were concentrating on consciousness. They didn’t seem to realise that the big problem was to explain how the brain creates meaning. Consciousness is only a very small part of the great mass of the meaning an individual meaning structure creates. However, I was unaware that at Berkeley University in California there was a neuroscientist who had arrived by a totally different path at the same conclusions that I had.

This was Walter J. Freeman whose most recent book is How Brains Make Up Their Minds. There he wrote, ‘Meaning is a kind of living structure that grows and changes yet endures.' 1 He went on, ‘In summary, each of us is a source of meaning, a wellspring for the flow of fresh constructions within our brains and bodies, sheltered by the privacy of isolation. Our constructions are by the exuberant growth of patterns of neural activity from the chaotic dynamics of populations containing myriads of neurons. Our intentional actions continually flow into the world, changing the world and the relations of our bodies to it. This dynamic system is the self in each of us. It is the agency in charge, not our awareness, which is constantly trying to catch up with what we do. We perceive the world from inside the boundaries as we engage it and then change ourselves by assimilation.2

Since our sense of self is our meaning structure, how we perceive ourselves, that is, how we feel about ourselves is central to our perception of the world. This is a far more complex concept than that rubbish jargon term ‘self esteem’ can ever indicate. How we feel about ourselves in made up of three major strands. The first is how much we care about, in the sense of love, and care for, in the sense of looking after, ourselves. The second strand concerns how much and in what way we value ourselves. The third strand concerns the dimensions we judge ourselves on and how harshly we apply our judgements.

This complex concept affects and is affected by all the meanings we create. We look at the world in relationship to ourselves.

The world as human beings see it is dominated by time. We see time as passing, never still, and ourselves as getting older. Ten years ago I was researching for my book Time on Our Side 3. I was busy asking clients, colleagues, friends, family, people I happened to meet on a train, ‘How do you feel about time passing and growing older.’ Without exception and irrespective of what age they were, they all told me they feared growing older. Time, one way or another, was their enemy.

Time, as we experience it, is very curious. We can go forwards and backwards in space but we can’t in time. You came here today from home and you’ll go back there, but you can’t go back to this morning. Yet the great theories of science, Newton’s mechanics, Einstein’s relativity, and the quantum mechanics of Heisenburg and Schrodinger, all seem to work just as well with time running backwards as well as forwards. But this isn’t what we see. All our experience agrees with the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that, when a process is irreversible, entropy, or the capacity of the system to change, always increases, so that the system in the future will have higher entropy than in the present or the past. Cold milk cools hot tea, ice melts, mountains crumble and we get older.

We perceive time as passing continuously, just as we perceive consciousness as being continuous. Yet scientists who study vision have shown that all we see of the world is an array of discontinuous snapshots which our brain then constructs into a continuous stream. We see no gaps in our surroundings and we see no gaps in time.

When our brain creates a picture of our surroundings it creates a picture of what we expect to see. When Captain Cook sailed his ship the Endeavour into Sydney Harbour the aboriginal people living on the foreshores ignored the ship and just went about their business as if nothing strange had occurred. The ship was an object totally outside their expectations. It was not until the sailors came ashore in small boats and the aboriginals saw objects the like of which they had seen before - men and small boats - that they could then actually see the Endeavour. This is how we all operate. We see what we expect to see, and when the world refuses to conform to our expectations we become frightened. One way of dealing with our fear is to deny what we have seen.

In western society time is expected to be linear and progressive. Some cultures have seen time as being circular with the ancestors being reincarnated in later generations. This was the belief of the Balinese in Bali and the Druse in Lebanon. But in western culture we see ourselves as progressing along a line which can lead to heaven and hell, or fame and fortune, or old age, doom and death. For us time consists of the past, the present and the future. There’s a lovely Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where the little boy Calvin is walking along talking to his tiger friend Hobbes on New Year’s Day. Calvin says, ‘I’m getting disillusioned with these new years. They don’t seem very new at all. Each new year is just like the old year. Here’s another year gone by and everything is still the same. There’s still pollution and war and stupidity and greed. Things haven’t changed. I say what kind of a future is this?! I thought the future was supposed to be better.’ Hobbes replies, ‘The problem with the future is that it keeps turning into the present.’

Until comparatively recently most people were unsure of exactly how old they were. For them the great milestone was Judgement Day when they would discover whether they would be spending eternity in heaven or hell. Nowadays every birthday comes as another milestone to be passed. It’s not the particular birthday itself that’s a problem but the particular value you and other people put on it. Does your approaching birthday mean that you are young, middle-aged or old?

Young, middle-aged and old are entirely relative terms, that is, relative to how the person sees himself. When Bob Zemeckis, the director of the film Back to the Future, was asked why the film had been so successful he replied, ‘We had a lot of old people going to Back to the Future. When I say old, I mean over eighteen.’

Of course, when I was eighteen I regarded anybody in their twenties as old. Now at seventy-two my views are different. I feel that people younger than seventy are mere infants, while those of us in our seventies are young, those in their eighties are middle-aged, but ninety is old.

The scale young, middle-aged and old is not a straight line. It goes up to a high point and then drops away sharply. For instance, a Qantas pilot giving flight information to passengers aboard a 747 bound for Australia said, ‘Before I sign off I want to wish Mrs Jean Willmington happy birthday. Welcome to the downside of your allotted three score and ten.’

When does your downhill slide start?

What we see as the high point and the downhill slide in our life can have a tremendous effect on us. Some years ago I noticed that of the twelve clients I was seeing regularly five were aged between twenty-six and thirty three. They were each suffering in different ways - depression, panic attacks, anxiety, despair, self-harm - but they were all agreed on one point. Thirty was the turning point in life. You had to have made it by the time you are thirty because after thirty you were too old.

The five differed on what they regarded as ‘making it’. Mary and Susan saw thirty as the biological time bomb. Mary wanted a baby so that she could lavish on her child the love she had been denied in her childhood. Susan had the desperate but vain hope that in having a baby she would win her mother’s approval. John, Simon and Peter, each for his own individual reasons, had set themselves the goal of reaching the pinnacle of achievement by the time they were thirty. They had failed to do this, and now they saw themselves as failures, their life in ruins.

Of course, now that they were in their thirties they would begin to lose what our society says are our most important attributes, sexual potency and sexual attractiveness. Many people, men and women, suffer enormous mental distress because they hold as an absolute truth the belief that to be acceptable they must be sexually attractive and be seen to be sexually active. Without that they are totally valueless, a nothing. In their thirties such people may work very hard at maintaining their appearance, but no amount of cosmetic surgery and hours in the gym can stop the march of time. For many thirty year olds forty is the last chance, and after that it’s downhill to disintegration, degradation and death.

Forty is a big turning point for many people because by then most of us have made the choices which will determine the course of the rest of our lives. Some forty year olds, having made choices that are turning out to be reasonably successful, now start to enjoy the delights of power, be it the power of managing people and objects and achieving something, or the power of exploring and mastering a particular subject and obtaining great satisfaction. They discover that such power is more delightful than sex. Other forty year olds find that their choices have so narrowed their opportunities that all they see before them is a dreary trudge down a dusty road to death. Some people respond in drastic ways - some leave their marriage or their career, some try to assuage their pain with drink and drugs, while others prefer to deny that they have lost what they thought would be a wonderful future and thus they retreat into depression.

Now that life expectancy exceeds the Biblical three score and ten people in their forties see turning fifty as the big milestone - half a century. Few people are prepared for what happens once you enter your fifties. Unless you are a very rich man you become invisible. You might see yourself as a very young fifty but the young don’t see you at all. In their way of thinking you are old, and to them the old are invisible. This is literally so. You wait at a reception desk, and the eyes of the receptionist go straight though you and see someone younger behind you in the queue. People bump into you because they haven’t seen you. This condition does not change for the rest of your life. If you do what I do when I am ignored, speak up loudly, you will actually see people jump with fright. A ghost has suddenly materialised before them. I am finding now that once people have to notice me they often get angry with me because I am not behaving in the way they expect me to behave. Little old ladies are expected to wander around always wearing an apologetic smile and always explain themselves in terms of how incompetent and foolish they now are. I do get tired of those well-meaning but stupid middle-aged women who try to explain their own or their firm’s inadequate practices in terms of my infirmity of mind.

Becoming invisible is a very curious experience but it has one great advantage if you’re a people watcher. I find that I can be writing down what the people beside me are saying and they don’t notice what I’m doing.

All of this and more I wrote about in my book Time on Our Side. Now I am ten years older I should perhaps add another chapter about what it’s like to be in your seventies.

One of my regular tasks now is to work out the age of the person I’m talking to, otherwise I’m likely to assume that that person has first hand knowledge of an event I’m talking about. I was talking to a consultant psychiatrist the other day and was about to start a sentence with, ‘You remember in the seventies in the NHS. . .’ when I realised that this chap would have been all of eight in the seventies. I am often horrified by how little recent history people in their twenties know. I have discovered that many journalists, men and women, think that women have always enjoyed the economic and sexual freedoms that they do now. Such ignorance is dangerous, because newly won freedoms are easily lost.

We usually think of getting older as a process of progressive loss, but, while physical losses are inevitable, we are constantly adding to our knowledge and experience. This is useful, but it also serves to make us lonely. In his book How Brains Make Up Their Minds Walter Freeman often makes the point that we, our meaning structures, are essentially alone. Walter is seventy six, and towards the end of his book he wrote, ‘The nature of our learning processes makes us more and more isolated as we grow older, as our cumulative episodic meaning structures become more and more complex with time and experience. We grow apart because of our unique personal histories. The more we learn, the more specialized we become, and the less competent we are to understand one another.4

I have to try to imagine the individual worlds of meaning of those people who were born after the Second World War, but I do have the advantage of having known those years as an adult. By contrast, people who are a decade or more younger than me, even if at school they have studied the history of those years, have a much harder task in comprehending how my contemporaries and I interpreted the events we lived through. If they cannot be bothered to make that effort of understanding they are likely to come up with very foolish notions, as did Oliver James when he wrote a book about how wonderful the nineteen fifties were and how it’s been downhill all the way since then.5 The nineteen fifties was a terrible time. The great, enveloping, deadening pall of the Victorian era with its customs and morality still enveloped us, while we lived in fear of being caught up in a third world war infinitely more destructive than the war from which we had just emerged. There is something worse than being ignored, and it’s having your own experience wilfully and ignorantly misconstrued.

This is why old friends are so important. We know one another’s history. We can talk about past events without having to explain their significance. We can remember other decades which are as different from now as are other worlds. The greatest sadness of growing old is not our own death but the death of our friends. They take with them part of our history and they leave a hole in our world that no one else can fill. We must always make sure that throughout our life that we celebrate our friends.


1) Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1999, p.12.

2) ibid p.120.

3) HarperCollins, London, 1994.

4) Op cit 203.

5) Britain on the Couch, Arrow, London, 1998.