Time, Memory, and Consciousness

My last few posts have strayed towards speculative musings on various aspects of consciousness. I’ve been reflective recently and this will be the most speculative, and least based on cognitive science, than any previous. Fair warning!

As we go through life it feels as if we live in an ever-present “now”. We are conscious of the present time and no other time. The past is but a memory, and the future is but a dream. But there are some very influential views on the nature of time which in essence state that our experience of time as a continuously extended now is an illusion (Einstein, Brian Greene, many physicists). From an objective bird’s eye view of the universe there is no special distinction between any one time and any other. This implies that every moment in time has an actual physical and infinite existence, outside of your experience of it. This moment right now, this short, fleeting moment is not the present, five years from now it won’t be the past, and five years ago it wasn’t the future. That experience is a trick of your consciousness. Your brain, which takes moments in time and “experiences” them as happening now, misleads our notions of how time works. This moment just IS. And always will be, forever.

“the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics.” – Einstein

The implications of this idea on the value we place on our moment to moment existence is staggering. I want you to imagine a time you were mean to somebody. Imagine a time you hurt someone, whether physically or emotionally. Imagine a time you could have done something to help someone who was suffering, but chose not to. I want you to think about these moments which you look back on with shame or embarrassment, sadness or regret, made bearable by their distance and the natural fading of memory. And then I want you to imagine that this moment is not just a memory…but still exists, right there where you left it. A moment frozen in time for all eternity. That pain you caused is always there and always will be. This isn’t easy. If we constantly experienced the salience of our past experiences to that degree we’d crumble under the weight of our mistakes; it’s good that we don’t. But I think sometimes it’s worth remembering that our actions have affects, and just because our memories of those actions and affects fade, we shouldn’t allow this to fool us into discounting the salience of those interactions as they happen. Just the opposite.

“the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” -Einstein

Now I want you to imagine some of the happiest times in your life. Experiences of pure joy. Times where you connected in profound ways with those around you. Times where you able to make those you love happy. Now think about those moments existing forever. A never-ending moment of love. At every moment each of us has a choice to make, what are the kinds of moments we want to leave behind?

Extra Cool Stuff:


(skip to 28:30 for a few minute of Brian Greene talking about the nature of time)