Diary: Noga Arikha, Stories and Neurology
We know that without the sense of temporality embedded within memory, there would be no unitary self, and many emotions dependent on representing what is not immediately present to the mind would not exist—hope, anxiety, regret, pride, sadness, joy, love, guilt. Yet change is embedded within the very current of a unitary, subjective life. We have that “core self” that we feel to be so strong, for instance, in a loved one with dementia. We build an identity through time that is also outside us: things age, and we age in time, all things relative to each other. Being is being in time, in each others’ time. We change and experience time, in time, and especially in shared space and time. The cases of people with neurological damage who lose their connection to time—for example from dementia or amnesia—illustrate the ways in which metaphysics and biology connect. And our biology may give us the key to the metaphysics.
Start with the assumption that, if all is well, we awake each morning aware of being the person we were the day before. Personal identity seems, according to this standard view, to rely on temporal continuity, and the two, as John Locke had described in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” in 1690, are deeply connected. Of course, we also change—and this is what complicates the notion of personal identity. For Hume, writing a few decades later in the Treatise of Human Nature, “man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement.” Just as flux characterizes our experience, so it is inherent in our identity: a small oak is the same tree as the grown oak, he writes, and the “infant becomes a man, and is sometimes fat, sometimes lean, without any change in his identity.” What binds the self together, the “source of personal identity,” is memory. “Had we no memory, we never should have any notion of causation, nor consequently of that chain of causes and effects, which constitute our self or person.”
Two hundred years after Hume, William James stated in his chapter on “The Perception of Time” in The Principles of Psychology that duration is the key to our perception of time. “It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation of succession of one end to the other is perceived … we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it.” Time flows, but it is made of moments that we divide into units: “we are constantly conscious of a certain duration—the specious present—varying in length from a few seconds to probably no more than a minute.” This duration, what he calls “specious present,” “is the original intuition of time.” Its content “is in a constant flux, events dawning into its forward end as fast as they fade out of its rearward one, and each of them changing its time-coefficient from ‘not yet,’ or ‘not quite yet,’ to ‘just gone,’ or ‘gone,’ as it passes by.”
The recall of an event beyond this “specious present” “is an entirely different psychic fact.” Meaningful, longer-scale human experience is nothing without memory and imagination, which recruit overlapping cerebral functions: when we recollect a moment, we also imagine and reconfigure it within a new present. Augustine develops a notion of time in his Confessions that has at its center the dependence of our understanding of past and future on memory: our very psychology, and our very ability to understand causality, are an aspect of the metaphysics of time. The self is constructed along with the sense of a socially shared temporality which we acquire progressively during childhood—and so, since the self is embodied, our perception of time is, like all else, profoundly embodied too.
A disruption in embodiment bends the sense of time—and this has been shown experimentally. It is possible that some people who lose sensation in parts of their body stop experiencing time—and that this experience corresponds to feeling lost in space as well. Such people are stuck in a perpetual present despite the fact that there is no neurological damage rendering them unable to encode and consolidate new memories. What they suffer is akin to what patients with schizophrenia or depersonalization disorders experience: they feel detached from their bodies and their sense of time is distorted. A patient who has lost sensation in half of his body has lost a dimension that is essential for experience to make sense. Such a patient can know the narrative that led to this loss, but it is as if they are locked up in a dimension that is no longer theirs—a dimension to their left or right, where they no longer feel themselves to be. Such a person looks whole, and normally embodied, but their self-narrative is split, just as are their memory and their body: they half feel, half know.
We all experience variations in how we experience time’s passage: slow, fast, too slow, too fast. Our perception of duration can shift according to whether we report it during or after an experience. It is only when we needn’t think about it, when we are wholly engaged within an activity that takes our attention away from our embodied self, that it feels just right, like the temperature of the small bear’s porridge in the story—with no sense of “lost” time or panic over “too little” time. Conversely, duration is diluted when we pay attention to time passing and the clock ticking and are not engaged with an activity. That neurophysiology, including notably the dopaminergic system (which regulates the dopamine that modulates our moods), shapes our perception of temporal duration. This has been tested on the sort of short time scale James had in mind with his “specious present.” Neuroscientist A. D. Craig has suggested that the processes that “constitute an image of the ‘material me’ or the sentient self at the immediate moment of time” are related to the appreciation of music, which he describes as “the rhythmic temporal progression of emotionally laden moments.”
Heartbeat detection has yielded more and more precise data regarding our neurological processing of time: experiments carried out and analyzed by neuroscientist Sarah Garfinkel and her colleagues indicate that parts of the brain responsible for temporal awareness coordinate the timing of external sounds against the heartbeat. The heart–brain dialogue has a direct impact on temporal awareness. We feel the variations in our physiologically-given sense of time every day, our perceptions and our feelings directly connect to the cardiac cycle of systole-diastole and to heart-rate variability, our emotions modulated in synchrony with cardiac rhythms. Staying in tune with time is entwined with the body. The sense of self and the sense of time coalesce.
Embodied time is subjective time, yet it must be synchronous with the embodied time of others for the individual to make sense of time, to communicate and to comprehend the world’s time. Inner time can only make sense in terms of outer time—and vice versa. We understand each other’s rhythms in speech, laughter, dance, love. We enjoy drumbeats that mimic the heart’s beat. When we are isolated in our internal time, duration is lost, days and nights grow into one unintelligible mass, as is so often the case in depression, for instance. It seems that the accuracy of time-duration detection falls away in psychiatric pathologies. The squeezing, stretching, knotting, dissolving of time is inherent in all states of ill health, or even mild unease, and in all moments of emotional transition. Dislocation from the ordinary spatiotemporal continuum is an aspect of dislocation from the social continuum.
The narrative coherence that arises out of the highly intricate, interrelated functions that make up our brains is often considered to be what makes our lives meaningful: we need to envisage our lives as somewhat coherent, though always chaotic, stories, with a beginning, middle, and end all connected. Damage to autobiographical memory is devastating for this reason. We need to place ourselves within time, just as the brain itself fabricates our present as a prediction of the future based on past inputs.
Of course, one may also argue against the idea that a meaningful life must be story-like, and attribute this need for coherence to a specific culture such as the modern Western one that values self-fulfillment and self-aware biographical progression. Philosopher Galen Strawson has argued that this sort of “narrativity” is not necessary for our life to have meaning. Meaning needn’t be constructed out of chronology. There is no need to think of oneself as a character in a Bildungsroman. Without narrativity, one can still draw substantive connections between how elements in the past might manifest themselves in the present—these linkings need not be overarching in a way that would be misleadingly generalizing. Even a scientific theory, like a narrative or story, or like known histories or myths, is a provisional construction: by definition it cannot encapsulate the complex, multilayered reality it is attempting to describe, recount or explain, and which will always escape our grasp. Time, in other words, need not be modelled post hoc by a literary imagination for us to be able to grasp ourselves within it as a coherent whole.
Narrativity might even breed a host of instances of self-deception, for instance a belief that to be “true to oneself” one must think of oneself as being a certain type of person, and act in accordance with that coherent self-representation, interpreting all past actions and relationships and envisaging all future ones on that basis. And this thought may be liberating. Time is strange enough, and the self enough of an enigma, not to have to link the two in a causal sense. But then narrativity contains chaos. It shapes the self as an entity belonging with other selves. Shared memories are the stuff of love. A memory borne alone grows cold and sad. There is narrative because we cannot survive for long on our own. Our very cultures are narratives. Even a theory is a story, if it is to hold together. The grammars of languages, and verbal meaning itself, as well. The passing of time—and the stories we live, even those we tell ourselves—is felt in the bones and seen on the skin.
Noga Arikha is the author of Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours and an associate fellow of the Warburg Institute, an honorary fellow of the Center for the Politics of Feelings, London, and research associate at the cognitive science laboratory Institut Jean Nicod in Paris. This post is drawn from her new book, The Ceiling Outside: The Science and Experience of the Disrupted Mind.
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