Monday, December 24, 2012

EXPLORATIONS INTO THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE OF TIME


While time exists independently of human beings, our perception and experience of time is uniquely human. I believe it is the modern human -- i.e. Homo sapiens sapiens -- sense of time that is the key difference between humans and the other animals. And further I believe that time, as we experience it, is created by our uniquely human brains and is critical to our sense of consciousness.

A friend of mine, who is an anthropologist with a PhD and who has spent a lifetime studying the effect migrating primitive humans had on the environment, made the point that whenever humans arrived at a new location, they radically changed the environment. 

I believe this is because humans can see patterns, remember those patterns and then project those patterns into the future. But understanding patterns requires a sense of time. Knowing when the fish ran in the past and will run in the future, the birds migrate, the crops grow, the seasons change is fundamental to human survival. This is also why humans have been able to adapt to just about any environment or part of the world, i.e. because they could grasp new patterns when they moved to a new place. 

Even the initial process of perceiving patterns required a sense of time. Humans had to see what was similar and recurring and discard what was random and inconsequential. The process of grasping a pattern meant that a culture had to relate later behavior to past behavior and understand the relationship. 

While tool making has often been cited as one of the key differences between humans and animals, it was an understanding of how a tool was to be used -- which first required a memory of the past -- that determined the construction, shape and usefulness of the tool. 

Stone age tools. Small cropped area from the huge timeline of world history: 
Adams Monumental Illustrated Panorama of History, 1878. (commons.wikimedia.org)

Constructing a net for fishing, for example, required experience in the past of how fish moved.

I found this photo at Wikimedia in the section on charts and graphics, 
the fishing net being essentially a chart -- 
showing the close connection between tool making and patterns. 
(commons.wikimedia.org)

In fact our entire culture requires an ability to access the past. Learning in school, for example, would have no meaning or usefulness if years later we could not draw on the lessons and skills learned. Even understanding the words on this page requires  that in the past you learned the meaning of each word -- and without that past these words would be meaningless.

Our sense of time is a unique function of our brains -- with short term, medium term and long term memories residing in our brain cells. Thus I believe it is our brains that have created this time-world we live in. The best term I know to describe this human world of time is what I call 'human meta-time'.

Yet we are so immersed in time, it is difficult to consider and separate ourselves from this immersion. We swim inside of time and time is always now. Trying to understand time is a bootstrap operation; we must lift ourselves up to a new perspective -- and for the moment put ourselves outside of time.

So in this series of essays, I will put forth ideas and concepts that examine a more complex understanding of how time operates than the one we take for granted every day.

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