Sunday, 14 May 2017

Remembering the Past, Seeing the Present, Imagining the Future

What time is it?
Time, what is it?

It’s amazing the difference word order can make; from a simple spare-no-thought response, to an existential wankfest. Thankfully I’m not trying to answer that particular question, so you can put your emotional jizz rag back where it belongs.

Before we had tools to measure discrete units of time, it was all pretty simple stuff – if the sun was up, it was day, if it had set, it was night. There were of course other methods depending on what you wanted to know – the phases of the moon, the tracking of the stars, and the procession of the seasons to name a few; but the thing they all have in common is change. Time is change by another name.

12PM isn’t just lunch time, it’s also the relative positions of the Sun and Earth (the seasons are the same thing only on a bigger scale). Time is great conceptual tool, it lets us measure and more importantly, categorise, the world around us - two things we really love doing.

Unlike other measurements, our perception of time is easily influenced by our emotional state. If someone appears to be roughly 6’ tall, they will look that way whether you’re bored or having the time of your life. Now, if you happen to be talking to this 6’ fella, and he just so happens to be quite the conversationalist, chances are the encounter is going to be over in the blink of an eye. But, if he’s duller than Theresa May’s lifeless eyes, it can feel like you’re chatting for an eternity, or is more likely the case, being chatted at for an eternity. This is of course time experienced at the level we’re all familiar with, what Richard Dawkins called, 'the middle world'. It’s the perceptual space we inhabit – it’s measuring lengths in centimetres and distances in kilometres, it’s weighing by the ounce and moving by the mile; it’s having a solid grasp on a crowd of 100 people, but not really comprehending the weight of an atom or the distance between planets. We’ve adapted to become good at dealing with sizes in the middle, but anything on the micro- and macro- scales, well, they really become meaningless outside of being very very big or very very small.

Our perception of time is something else entirely; it’s a figment of our imagination. Without getting all Downward Dog, when it comes to time, the only thing we really have is ‘the moment’, the second just gone exists only as ghost in the mind, while the second to come is phantasm of the future. Our memories are ghost stories of the past, tales passed on like a game of Telephone – minor details changed on reach repetition. Ask two people to recount the same experience and you’ll get two different version of events. Our memories are retellings, but not of the original day in question – they’re a repeat of the retelling, so when I tell the story of the time I was banned from appearing on the BBC, I’m actually telling the last version of the story I told – the real story is gone, vanishing the instant it moved from happening to happened.

It’s easy to think of memories as being analogous to a file on a computer, ready to be clicked open at a moment’s notice, but it’s not quite the same – in computing terms a memory is really a collection of symbolic links, and in reality it is a story, one that is pulled into active memory when you’ve been given enough cues to remember it. The story you’re hearing sets off all sorts of neural connections, until eventually there’s a connection to a story that you simply must tell. Oh, that reminds me of the time I...

The more we tell our stories and share our memories, the stronger they become, and so the easier they are to recall – there are all sorts of bits and pieces of a memory floating about our heads at any one time, some will hide for years before they surface, they’re the stories you never really tell, never replay in your minds eye, but, ten years down the line, someone will say something, and like a magician pulling an 18-wheeler from the hat, you’ll be floored by something you thought you’d forgotten. Not that we ever really forget, we just don’t always remember.

How many times have you recanted a tale only to be told you’re telling it wrong? It didn’t happen that way! I didn’t say that! No two people will have the same version of events – it’s impossible, not only because two people can never have the same vantage point of the same event (can’t occupy the same space as someone else), but our vision is a precellular mix of top-down and bottom-up processing; all of which is a fancy way of saying your learned experiences play a role in how you perceive things - just as much as the physical stimuli streaming in through your eye. How you see and what you remember are two life-long processes, starting way back before your eyes were even open.

We use assumptions all the time – where shadows fall, how edges meet, these are short cuts in visual processing, and they’re the reason why we’re so easily fooled by optical illusions, and continue to be fooled by them despite knowing their true nature. More often than not the assumptions are right, and the trade off between accuracy and efficiency is usually worth it. These assumptions are called heuristics, they’re ‘rules of thumb’ - quick and dirty brain cheats that allow for rapid data calculation, calculations which may not always be correct, but may not always matter if it’s wrong.

We use heuristics when we try and imagine the future, we take a frame of reference and extrapolate. Today and tomorrow and yesterday, all pretty similar with only small differences between them, but over the course of years, those tiny deviations can lead to massive change. The other things that can lead to huge changes are the big life events – no, not your wedding, or birthday, or graduation – they are expected, it might feel like a big event, but it’s one we are aware of, it is planned. The real big events are the unexpected – the proposal, the letter of acceptance, the unexpected death, the car accident, the lottery win. Trying to imagine the future is like trying to forecast the weather, the further from today you venture, the less sure you are of the results.

 And while imagining the future is unreliable, remembering the past is no better. I can tell you what I was doing five minutes ago, but 5 years ago? Not a chance. You’d have to settle for the vague story of where I was in life – a location and an aim. The only difference is those who keep a record of the past – a daily journal, but for the rest of us, it’s guess work.  

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