Brain States and Time

Have you ever been in a situation where you were so afraid that you felt your heart race, and even in the aftermath, could focus only on little else than what just happened? How does that incident affect your sense of time?

How time affects our brain wiring and reactions

A child's fear can affect her understanding of time. (photo courtesy of
A child’s fear can affect her understanding of time. (photo courtesy of

Think about driving and the near-misses when someone pulled in front of you and you were about to hit them. For me, a fearful moment occurred when one of our children wandered away from us in a mall. Both my wife and I went into sheer panic until we found him.

For someone else, it could have been real traumaviolence perpetrated against you, or that you watched occur, and you just could not sequence what you needed to do next. And I have heard so many stories from some of our veterans how horrid circumstances became a double-bind for them, and they struggled to process what to do next.

Our brains are wired to bring us natural defense mechanisms to preserve our lives in such intense situations.

The greater the fear, the more the lower parts of the brain take over.  Most of those fear-based brain states are designed to focus on a way to escape or cope with the intensity of what is felt and provide the ability to deal with that issue in a singular way.

Impacting children and adults is how a fear-based response affects our sense of time. Let’s revisit the brain states with regard to time and look at what happens.

  • When you are calm and in your neo-cortex you can think about future extended time.
  • When you are on alert and in your sub-cortex you can think in terms of days and hours.
  • When you are on alarm and in your limbic part of the brain you can think in terms of hours and minutes.
  • When you are in a fear state and in your mid-brain you can think in terms of hours and seconds.
  • When you in in your terror state and in your brainstem you have a loss of any sense of time.

Now think about a child whose brain is still changing and developing  as she learns about the world.

The child typically has all kinds of fears, sometimes real and sometimes imagined. As she encounters life, listens to parents, attunes to teachers and friends and manages all kinds of perceptions and fears, how she processes time?

As a caregiver, it may make sense to us to say “if you do not do your homework you will never get into third grade” thinking that it makes sense to the child. So, we propose a fear situation and then talk about a long-term consequence. Depending on the temperament of the child, what she cares about, and the level of fear felt, thinking about something in the long-range may be way beyond her ability to comprehend—just based on brain-state.

More seriously, if a child has been a part of a violent situation and that situation is triggered (that is, she is reliving the violence), expecting her to think about what will happen in an hour may be completely unrealistic because her sense of time has been compromised. She may not be able to think according to our expectations.

Thus, one aspect of understanding brain-states is to also understand how certain brain-states impact a child’s comprehension of time. 

Our child’s ability just may not be where we think it is. She may not be able to hear consequences or issues that are time-related.

I think this principle really affects so much of what we say and do with children, particularly when there is a perception of fear occurring. It makes teaching, parenting and caregiving all the more complex, but it also gives us insight into understanding what teens and adults may be experiencing.

More to come as we continue to discuss how to help those around us with aspects of fear-based experiences and how they lead to certain states of the brain.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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