Why Our “Common Sense” View of Time May Be False

June 2nd, 2021

By Steve Taylor, Ph.D.

Guest writer for Wake Up World

At the age of 16, Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder, living in Nottingham, UK. One day, he fell from the third story of a building. In falls, it is common for people to experience a radical slowing down of time, and Tony’s experience was no exception. He said, “Everything became very, very slow.”

In falls from a substantial height, it is also not uncommon for people to see a review of the events of their lives — or sometimes just a series of the most significant events — somehow collapsed into a few seconds of normal time. Tony had this experience too, although he seemed to see events from his future, rather than his past. As he described it, “In my mind’s eye I saw many, many things; children that I hadn’t even had yet, friends that I had never seen but are now my friends. The thing that really stuck in my mind was playing an instrument.” Tony also saw images of different places around the world, although at the time he had never been out of the UK.

Tony landed on his head and lost consciousness. When he came to at the hospital, he felt like a different person and didn’t want to return to his previous life. Although he felt attracted to music, he hadn’t had the option to study it at school and had never played a musical instrument. No one in his family played an instrument either. Over the following weeks, the images kept flashing into his mind. As he described it, “Every time I closed my eyes, the images were there. The one that really stuck in my mind was me playing an instrument.” He felt that he was “being shown something,” and that the images represented his future.

A few weeks later, Tony saw a picture of a saxophone and recognised it as the instrument he had seen himself playing. He received some compensation money for the accident and used it to buy a saxophone. He practised for hours a day, teaching himself by playing along with records.

He didn’t tell his family about his vision, and they were confused. His parents tried to discourage him, disappointed that he was giving up his apprenticeship for the pipedream of becoming a musician. He tried to gain a place at a UK music college, but as he had no formal music qualifications, no one would accept him. However, he was so determined to become a musician that he applied to American colleges and was accepted as a self-taught musician by the Berklee College of Music.

Now Tony Kofi is one of the UK’s most successful jazz musicians. He has won the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008. Over the course of his career, he has traveled to all of the places he saw during his fall. He now has three children, who he believes he saw during his fall.

Beyond Linear Time

Is it really possible that Tony Kofi glimpsed his future? Did he see himself playing the saxophone because somehow his future as a musician was already established, or did he become a musician simply as a way of bringing his vision to reality? Is it really possible that the children he saw were his own future children, and that he saw his future friends?

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Certainly, Tony’s experience suggests that our “common sense” view of time may be misleading. As I suggested in my last post, what we human beings perceive as “common sense” reality is most likely a very limited and narrow vision of the world. Every animal has a certain degree of awareness of reality, and while our awareness is probably more intense than most other animals, it is highly improbable that our awareness is anywhere near complete, or even reliable. There must be wide ranges of reality that we don’t have access to, including multiple forces and phenomena that we are unaware of, or unable to understand.

This certainly applies to time. The extreme slowing down of time that Tony experienced is common during falls and other accidents, and in altered states of consciousness such as deep meditation or under the influence of psychedelics. Such “time expansion experiences” suggest that there is nothing objective or absolute about our normal perception of time. It is simply a product of our normal state of consciousness. When we slip into an altered state of consciousness, our experience of time changes drastically. In some altered states, such as flow or hypnosis, time seems to speed up, but in the above examples, it slows down so dramatically that seconds seem to stretch out into minutes. As I suggested in a previous post, this isn’t just the result of recollection (as some authors have suggested) but a real experience that takes place in the present. There are no satisfactory attempts to explain these experiences in neurological or physiological factors either. (See this paper of mine.)

The other significant aspect of Tony’s experience was his apparent vision of future events. Naturally, from our point of view, it appears that time runs like an arrow from the past through the present towards the future. The past disappears into memory, and the future is unknowable until we reach it. However, there are many findings from modern physics which cast doubt on this linear view of time.

Since Einstein’s theory of relativity, physicists have adopted a “spatial” view of time. We live in a static “block universe” in which time is spread out, in a panorama. The past, the present, and the future co-exist simultaneously and are predetermined and unchanging. The modern physicist Carlo Rovelli — author of the best-selling The Order of Time — also holds the view that linear time doesn’t exist as a universal fact but is simply imposed by the human mind. At the most fundamental level of reality — at the level of quantum physics — time disappears so that we find a “physics without time.”

Panoramic Time

It appears that, in some unusual states of consciousness, we become able to view our lives in a spatial rather than a temporal way. In these moments, we’re like a passenger in an airplane looking at a landscape from above, compared to a person on the ground, walking along a path through the same landscape, only able to look ahead and behind. This explains why some people are able to review the events of their whole lives in an instant. It also makes it possible that sometimes people may glimpse events from their future.

The Israeli psychologist Benny Shanon came to a similar conclusion as a result of the altered states of consciousness he experienced under the influence of the psychedelic substance ayahuasca. As he put it, “everything that has ever happened, as well as everything that will ever happen, all have an equal temporal status. In a certain sense, they are all there and one only has to look at them … A perspective is taken by which all that will have happened at all times is co-present. In this limit situation, the temporal may, in a fashion, be reduced to the spatial.”

None of this seems to make any sense. How could the past and the future possibly exist side by side with the present? It also poses philosophical problems. For example, if the future is laid out before us, what does it say about free will?

But why should everything make sense to us? In my view, there is nothing more irrational than the attitude of dogmatic skepticism, which insists that human beings already understand the rudiments of reality and that any anomalous phenomena can be explained away as illusions. We should accept that there are some aspects of reality that are beyond our comprehension. And perhaps more than any other phenomenon, this is true of time.

Originally published at Psychology Today and reproduced with permission.

Recommended articles by Steve Taylor, Ph.D:

About the author:

Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. His latest books in the US are The Calm Center and Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. He is also the author of The Fall, Waking From Sleep, and Out Of The Darkness. His books have been published in 19 languages. His research has appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Transpersonal Psychology Review, The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, as well as the popular media in the UK, including on BBC World TV, The Guardian, and The Independent.

As the author of Out Of The Darkness, one of Steve’s research interests is “awakening experiences” — moments when our normal awareness intensifies and we feel a sense of connection and meaning. What causes these experiences? Is it possible to control them? Steve’s work also examines the sources of psychological suffering — Why is it that human beings find it so difficult to be contented? His research also shows that many awakening experiences are triggered by intense psychological turmoil, such as depression and loss.

Connect with Steve at StevenMTaylor.com.

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