Friday, February 1, 2013

Virtual Human Meta-Time

In this series of blogs I have made the point that the human perception of time is very different from clock time. Plus the human capacity for understanding time is different from all other animals on the Earth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way we conceptualize and use time in our conscious functioning. 

I like to think of it as "human meta-time" -- 'meta' meaning time above and beyond the standard moment to moment existence of time, beyond now -- an almost different dimension of time, a kind of virtual time. This 'human  meta-time' works in conjunction with a 'human  meta-space' -- our mental map of the places where we live, work, drive through, visit, etc. 

Within each of our minds is a conception of space and time that we have gained over the years -- a space and time that we can move around in -- created from memories -- and a space where we can even create new areas with our imaginations. This virtual meta-space includes past, present and future -- and we can move easily within it across both time and space at warp speed. 

For example, in a matter of seconds, I can walk through my childhood home that I have not seen in 30 years and that physically is 600 miles away and vividly remember events in my childhood, think about what I am going to do in the next minute and then walk around an exhibit I am planning in my mind, that will be in a building an hour away and does not yet exist.

This aspect of human time is so complex, this article can only begun to scratch the surface.

Memory is the key component of meta-time and our ability to manage, shape and organize time. Because of memory we can learn skills, learn to conceptualize, recall what we have accomplished so far in a task, and build on experience. 

Beyond the basic cataloging of our past, it also remembers things that happened in a unique way. It can remember occurrences as events, not measured by minutes or hours, but rather as an internal experience with its own sense of time. This aspect of memory comprehends duration -- that is time beyond the now moment -- and creates depth, dimension and perspective. It also puts together composites of places and events and allows us to walk through them at will. 

We all work with meta-time and meta-space everyday yet think little of it. 

In an example of meta -time and -space, each of us can visualize places where we are not now. For example a co-worker in your office an hour from you, might call you from your office and ask for the location of a book. In your mind you could move around in your office, open and close desk drawers and guide that co-worker in their search.

And in another example of meta -time and -space, I can go back into the past and walk through the house where I lived as a child. I can stand outside and see the door, the bushes and the windows -- then walk up the steps, open the front door and walk down the hallway, touching the walls with my hands and looking at the pictures hanging on the walls -- pictures that were there years ago and are not there now. When I taught a creative writing class, I used this idea as one of my exercises. Everyone was able to write a detailed description of a home they had not visited in decades yet they could conjure up in their memories.

All of us have a remarkable capacity to move though meta -time and -space effortlessly. If, for example, I asked you about a party you were at last Saturday that was held a hundred miles away, you would probably be able to walk around that party in your mind and tell me who was there, how they were dressed and what some of them said and recall in seconds things from the beginning, middle and end of the five hour party. Yet you might be hard pressed to say exactly what time -- i.e. clock time -- each thing happened, only that it occurred within the 'time frame' of the party.

This same meta capability works just as well for future events. For example, last spring I was involved in designing an exhibit of digital photography. In my mind I ambled around the gallery space where the show was to be hung, made diagrams, looked at my work, not there yet, on the walls -- so that in my imagination I was actually able to walk through the exhibit that did not yet exist and rearrange furniture and displays.
Diagram of my exhibit months before I set it up. (Rick Doble)

The exhibit after I had put it together -- 
very much like my plan above. (Rick Doble)

To Summarize:

Human meta-time is a virtual time that we can access in our minds. In meta-time you can go forward and back in time and also into the future. The normal real world constraints do not apply in this virtual realm. 

Nevertheless, your personal meta-time must mesh or work in conjunction with objective time and cultural time, as I described in the article before this one. So when you are driving down the road thinking of the last time you saw your girl friend a hundred miles away and imagining what it will be like when you see her again, you'd better pay attention to stop lights up ahead and apply the brakes when a car in front of you stops unexpectedly.

This wonderful composite self portrait shows the artist as he is now and photos of him as a child, a young adult and also his parents -- not unlike the meta-time described in this blog. (

All photos except the plan for exhibit and photo of exhibit are courtesy of

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