Saturday, 28 March 2020

There is Now or there is Know

Humans are compelled to structure time. We might even say that humans create time, through the way that we perceive sequences of cause and effect. Without a human mind to observe the universe, the universe exists only in the now. It has no past or future.

Through millennia of scientific research, driven by our need to structure time and to understand ‘why?’, we have come to understand the nature of the physical world. We understand the laws of physics well enough to send probes to other planets. We understand chemical processes well enough to combine elements and estimate the passage of geological time. Detectives will look at a crime scene in the present and deduce what must have happened in the past. A fingerprint says that someone was here. How did that person get here? Where did  they come from? Where did they go next?

Our ability to structure time creates two illusions which we commonly call ‘past’ and ‘future’.
Just as the rocks in a cliff face contain a memory of the passage of millions of years of time, our minds and bodies are built upon layers of foundations created by past events. Those past events are not happening now. Your lifetime of worry and laughter isn’t happening now. The wrinkles around your eyes only exist now. We can deduce what muscle movements caused those wrinkles. By examining the structure of the connections in your brain we could even deduce what experience led to those muscle movements.

Your mind is a map of reality – your reality, up until this moment. Everything that you have seen, heard, felt, experienced through your many senses is encoded in the connections between decision making cells which we call neurons. If you cannot begin to imagine how your entire life experience is stored in this way then you are beginning to understand how bad humans are at handling very big numbers. You have 90 billion neurons, each with up to 10,000 connections to neighbouring neurons. You have more connections in your brain than there are observable stars in the universe. But you cannot imagine such a large number, and so you find it hard to believe that your brain is nothing more than a densely packed flowchart, a decision making matrix that consistently and predictably takes whatever sensory input is presented and generates a motor output; an action.

Everyone human on this planet (and orbiting around it) is consistent, habitual, ritualistic. Except you. You are the only unique, free-thinking, rational member of the species. You can see others’ habits. You can see how your friends set off the same sequence of events when they  compete for status. You can see your parents repeating the same arguments, over and over again. You know what loved ones will say before they say it. But you? You are the master of your destiny, you are the only person on this planet who is truly unique, who lives in the moment. And when you think of it like that, it doesn’t seem plausible, does it?

How can we explain this disparity between what you see and what others see? It’s really very simple – you are the only person in the world who has never seen and will never see you. You exist only in the now. You are reacting to this moment only. You are not aware of what past events have led you to this moment.

Your family, friends and colleagues see things differently. They remember the last time you reacted this way, and the time before, and the time before. They notice similarities, connect them together and declare that you are “always doing this”. “Doing what?” you ask in frustration. Your consistency is, of course, what gives you friends, colleagues and family. People who are unpredictable are hard to live with, they make us feel unsafe, and we operate from fear rather than security. If you’ve ever known someone who had a ‘quick temper’ then you know what this means and how this feels.
Imagine if you could not replay your memories. Imagine if your life experience was encoded into your mind and body but you could not directly access it. You would still make the same decisions, but you wouldn’t be able to explain why. You would know how to make tea or sing your favourite song, but you wouldn’t know how you know. No doubt you have heard of cases of amnesia in which people, as a result of physical or psychological trauma, can remember how to get to their house but can’t remember where they live.

One reason for this interesting phenomena is that we don’t possess just one type of memory. For example, you have a memory for remembering sequences of events, and you have a memory for remembering actions. This enables you to remember physical skills long after you’ve forgotten how you learned them.

When I was a teenager, I played the flute in a concert band. I stopped playing when I started work, and 30 years later I rejoined the same band following a reunion event. Every few years, I had found my flute and played it briefly, so I knew that I could still play. However, at the first rehearsal I attended after rejoining, I realised something that worried me – I could no longer read music. I saw patterns of lines and dots on the page and I had no idea what they meant. The band was still playing some of the same music from 30 years ago, and if I knew the music I could play along without having to think about it. But for music that I hadn’t played before, I had to go back to the very first thing I learned about reading music aged 11; FACE and Every Good Boy Deserves Food, the mnemonics for remembering the notes on a musical stave.

If I looked at a black dot on the middle line, I had no idea what note it represented. I had to count – Every, Good, Boy. B. If the subsequent notes followed the first with only slight changes then I could play for a while, but if the notes jumped to begin a new theme, I was back to counting.

It was as if my conscious, thinking, rational mind had completely forgotten how to play music, but my unconscious, unthinking, irrational mind still knew. What was actually happening was that the motor movements to press my left thumb and forefinger together to produce a B were still wired into my motor cortex. My brain still had the ability to produce the same output, but its ability to decode the input was missing.

Over the next few weeks, my ability to read the notes in the stave came back. After that, I relearned how to read the notes that sit above and below the stave, as well as being able to decode sharps and flats, the half notes that sit between the 7 main notes. This is trickier than it sounds because, for example, C sharp is the same note as D flat, and sometimes the composer will favour sharps, and sometimes flats, and the player needs to be able to quickly switch between the two. Because of the odd arrangement of the musical scale, C flat is the same as B. My weeks of boring practice of scales and arpeggios at age 11 suddenly made sense. I couldn’t read music, but I could play it, and I retained an intuitive sense of how musical notes fit together.

The process of distant knowledge becoming increasingly within my grasp was fascinating. After a few months, I was a far better player than I had ever been as a teenager.

Amnesia is a theme often explored in literature. For example, in the Jason Bourne series of films, Bourne learns that he has self-defensive skills but he can’t remember how he acquired them. He can’t even remember who he is. Over time, he follows a series of clues that reveal information about his past. He even begins to remember fragments of it.

In the Marvel comic books and films, Dr Bruce Banner can’t remember what he does when he transforms into the Hulk, and the Hulk is unaware of Banner. You might recognise this as a modern interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde, but where and when did you first learn about Jekyll and Hyde? Did you read it in a book? Did someone use the phrase to describe an unpredictable person? Did you see the old black and white film? When did you first hear your name? How did you learn how to make tea, or slice bread, or open a packet of biscuits?

You know that you know these things because you can perform the actions. You might even make up a story to explain how you know. But even without that story, you still know.

Imagine life without past and future. Imagine being aware of only the now, and acting from the foundations of your experiential knowledge. This would be a life free from worry, and perhaps also free from dreams.

Fortunately, you can dream, and you can hope and you can aspire. You can build on your foundation of knowledge. And yet, you would do well to remember that the stories you tell yourself about past and future are merely stories, created to comfort yourself, created to present the illusion of choice, the illusion that you are the only unique, rational person, that you are not a mere creature of habit. The truth is that you don’t really know how you know what you know, but you know that you know it. The evidence is in your actions, and through your actions you touch the world, you leave a trail of evidence for future generations to follow.

Focus on now. Build on what you know. Trust others to follow.