Samuel Butler’s Erewhonians believe that, upon their birth into the physical world, the minds of unborn spirits are wiped clean. This explains why newborn babies (each possessing one spirit) have no memories of their former life.
I could sympathize when last week I opened my eyes to find myself looking up at a strange and unrecognizable face. How horrible and frightening — no wonder newborn babies cry! I screwed up my face and passed out.
Later, I was looking at the faces of two paramedics. This time I didn’t freak out — their attentive looks of calm concern were vaguely reassuring. I was, however, very confused. I couldn’t recall a past and I was struggling to remain aware of the present. ‘What day is it?’ ‘How did you get here?’ ‘What is your last memory?’ I asked to be told what year it was. “2015,” they told me. “2015?” I questioned. Astonishing.
And then I lost my grip. I slipped back into a timeless stupor. By the time I regained consciousness I had completely lost my way. I once again asked to be told the year. (“2015,” just as before.) I asked this question many times during the short ride to the hospital. The year 2015 seemed very much like it should be in the future. If they had told me that it was 2010 I think I would have felt much less surprised.
Amidst all this bewilderment, I asked something to the effect of “what?” or “why?”. The paramedic helpfully informed me that I was waking up from a seizure. This word, or the way he said it, gave my situation a concreteness which consoled me greatly at the time. It gave me something to cling to. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘a seizure… a seizure…’
Somebody asked me my name and I was quick to tell them. “Hadleigh Frost.” My voice was strong and sure. I was proud to be so good at saying my name on request: that seemed like something not all post-seizure epileptics would be able to do. Some vestigial part of my brain felt proud that, even in an ambulance, I might be outperforming my peers.
I remembered my name (and my hubris) but I didn’t remember enough about life to worry about whether this seizure would have ramifications. I didn’t ponder the implications of having an epileptic head. I didn’t worry about the fragility of my mind. I didn’t have any deep feelings at all. I was existing on the surface of the moment. On the faces of the paramedics. On the soft purr of the ambulance engine. On the damp orange shadows of the passing sodium lamps. I was only in the present. I gave no thought to past or future.
And this turned out to be a wonderful way to exist: I was happy; I was comfortable; and, by the time I was settling into the emergency department, I was euphoric. I was on the surface of every sentence — buoyant and jolly. The slightest thing made me laugh. I confided to my friend that “I don’t think I’ve been this happy in months!”
It is hard enough to know whether one is happy or unhappy now, and still harder to compare the relative happiness or unhappiness of different times of one’s life; the utmost that can be said is that we are fairly happy so long as we are not distinctly aware of being miserable. — Butler
Indeed, having a seizure was one of my least distinctly miserable experiences in April. My post-seizure mind was bathed in a warm chemical afterglow, and I spent most of my hospital stay feeling grateful for and awestruck by the world around me. ‘How amazing our civilization is!’ ‘How wonderful it is that hospitals exist!’ ‘How clever that registrar was just then!’
I was also very pleased that, with very little effort, I was able to alert my parents to my situation. Incidentally, those messages left my friend’s mobile phone travelling at the speed of light: which brings me to Albert Einstein, whose theory of gravitation was published one hundred years ago.
Before Einstein, the universe was thought to evolve according to the laws of physics with reference to an absolute background of universal time. Everyone, it was thought, experienced the same “now” — the same “present moment”. This seemed sensible enough. But, even in the 18th century, the nature of time was still confusing for physicists and philosophers. For instance, the classical laws of physics are reversible, so why do we observe things progressing (entropy increasing) in one direction of time only? Why can we recall the past but not the future?
Einstein’s work only exacerbated people’s trouble with time. General relativity necessarily does away with any notion of the “present moment”. What one considers to be “the present” completely depends on where one is in the universe and how fast one is travelling. This does not mean that physics is subjective. It was Einstein’s great triumph to show that everyone’s disparate experiences of time can successfully reconciled by a sophisticated structure called spacetime. The catch is that this structure, spacetime, is unchanging — it is timeless. (Einstein’s theory is not controversial. It has been confirmed by all hitherto conducted experiments. Most commentators consider it to be physics at its most elegant and refined.)
“The present” is not a well-defined notion. Nevertheless, in our subjective experience of life it feels like there is a present moment happening right now. How does this experience emerge from a timeless universe? Why does it feel like one moment in time, the present, is being picked out as special above all the other moments? Some philosophers call this the ‘problem of the now’. Indeed, according to one philosopher, Rudolf Carnap, this is a problem that troubled Einstein. It troubled me following my seizure.
Before I fell onto the floor, I was sautéing courgettes. And I was listening to my friend. While he spoke I was looking around: at the plates, the greasy spatula, the speckles on the bench top. Then the speckles blurred; the plates grew in size. And I listened as my friend said a sentence two times over — the exact same way each time. All the while the massive dinner plates (oscillating in size and shape) dominated my attention.
“Did you say that twice?”
I didn’t see his face because I was still looking at the plates. For a moment, my mind had become an echo chamber and the echo of reality had felt as real as reality itself — a deja vu.
What do these experiences tell us about our brains? Our conscious perception of time (and the sequence of events that make it up) is dependent on underlying neurological processes. Since time can seem to pass at different rates, I am forced to conclude that the time-scale of these processes (as measured by an external observer) is variable. Further, it seems that it must be possible for these processes to feedback on themselves to create repeats in the signal that explain the “echo” I experienced. These hypotheses are not unreasonable, but the details are difficult to fill in (even given the progress of contemporary neuroscience).
However, a more beguiling problem is raised by the “problem of the now”. An objective description of physics spurns the “present moment” in favour of Einstein’s spacetime. The problem is to explain how, in spite of this, our subjective now arises out of our brains. But how could we ever verify such an explanation? The very act of having an experience and forming a memory is intimately connected to our perception of the present moment. Would a test subject who is not experiencing the present moment ever be able to report this?
One might imagine a theory that predicts how to precisely modulate our subjective experience of time with drugs or electrical stimuli. That way, we could directly test whether our experiences are in accordance with the theory.
Of course, this sounds much very much like something that billions of people do all the time. N-methyl-D-aspartate is a protein found in nerve cells that controls the flow of charged ions through the cell membrane. The movement of ions into and out of nerve cells is a key mechanism underlying the whole nervous system: and it is easily tampered with. Substances that interfere with the behaviour of NMDA include ketamine, dextromethorphan, and ethanol. All of these substances have interesting effects on one’s subjective experiences. Indeed, ketamine is a common anesthetic, and we are (most of us) familiar with the amnesic effects of alcohol. The blocking of ion channels directly interferes with one’s conscious perception of time.
Dextromethorphan is particularly interesting. Commonly found in over-the-counter cough syrup, DXM blocks ion channels and also increases serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter) concentrations in synapses (by inhibiting its re-uptake into other cells away from the synapse). At sufficient doses, recreational users of DXM become euphoric and experience feelings of dissociation from their bodies and environment. They may experience changes in their perception of time (events occurring faster or slower than normal) and even lose their sense of time altogether.
Hallucinogenic drugs solve neither the problem of consciousness nor the problem of the now. As I said earlier, one difficulty is that we don’t know the details. Precisely how do modifications to the behaviour of ion channels affect our subjective experience? Billions of neurons are involved in giving rise to consciousness, and we are only beginning to understand how they are wired up to achieve this.
But even when scientists do report a complete map of the human brain, will it explain our experience of time? Will it make sense of consciousness? Probably not. Our sense of time is something that taints and biases every single thought that we have: conscious thought and our sense of time are likely much the same thing. In order to understand why ‘now is happening now’ we will need an insightful new way of talking about ourselves and our experiences. I can’t imagine what such an insight might look like.
Why do you Samuel Butler’s unborn babies (living comfortably in timeless eternity) freely choose to have their brains wiped and enter into our temporal world? Butler tells us that they do this because they get bored with eternity. The underlying truth to Butler’s parable might be that one cannot be aware of one’s existence unless one is experiencing (and has experienced) the present. That, in fact, conscious awareness and ‘the present’ are one in the same thing.