Thursday, December 18, 2014

Time & Consciousness

Some scientists have said that human consciousness is perhaps the biggest unsolved scientific mystery of today. I would not disagree. 

While I do not pretend to understand the latest findings from brain studies, I do believe human consciousness must involve language plus a sense of time. The combination of these two things allows humans to create a virtual world in their minds, a virtual world of meta-time and meta-space -- which I have written about before. See my blog on Virtual Human Meta-Time.

To test this idea, it would be helpful to find a person who had not been conscious but who then suddenly became conscious. If we could find such a person, we could examine their experience and the transition they went through. Like the studies of left brain and right brain activity that looked at people whose brains had been damaged and the effects this had on language, could we find a person whose affliction would highlight aspects of consciousness?

It turns out there was such a person -- and she was thoughtful, intelligent and articulate. I am speaking of the famous deafblind Helen Keller who went from not knowing any words to mastering a complex vocabulary. After her breakthrough she became the first deafblind person to obtain a college degree graduating from Radcliffe with honors. She was also the first deafblind person to write a book and she went on to write 14 books.

Helen with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and her doll. (
Anne Sullivan ... began to teach Helen [ED: at age 6] to communicate by spelling words into her hand, beginning with "d-o-l-l" for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present. Keller was frustrated, at first, because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it....Keller became so frustrated she broke the doll.
The following is what Helen Keller herself had to say about her discovery of language. NOTE: I have taken a number of sentences from Helen Keller's various works and arranged them to focus on the aspect of her sudden consciousness of time. 

Once I knew only darkness and stillness.

My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future [ED: my emphasis] 

It was not night—it was not day. .      .      .      .      . 
But vacancy absorbing space, 
And fixedness, without a place; 
There were no stars—no earth—no time— [ED: my emphasis] 

Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another. So I was not conscious of any change or process going on [ED: another aspect of time]

But a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living. Night fled before the day of thought,

With the first word I used intelligently, I learned to live, to think, to hope. Darkness cannot shut me in again. 

When I learned the meaning of "I" and "me" and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.

The famous moment when she became conscious is well known and depicted in the play/movie The Miracle Worker. Here is Helen's description of that pivotal moment:
Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness...and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan
We can assume from her earlier comments that this awakening of her soul now included a sense of past, present and future -- which she did not have before that moment.

Helen 'feeling' the words from the mouth 
of Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, wife of the president. (

I find it quite significant she emphasized time did not exist before language. Once she had grasped the meaning of words as symbols -- that they represented things and concepts -- her world opened up and an understanding of time was a direct result. 

Helen in her graduation outfit. (
Thought made me conscious of love, joy, and all the emotions. I was eager to know, then to understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my sensations, vanished forever.
The World I Live In by Helen Keller
(this book goes into a detailed description of her transition)
NOTE: You can get a free copy of this book on in a variety of formats: 

Helen's signature after she learned to write. (
As I have written, I believe humans have a unique sense of time -- we are the only animal who understands and can place moments in time on a timeline and who can communicate the concept of 'when' in the past, present and in the future. And we can do this because of language. See my blog: Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of Time .

 As reported next in an article from the American Association For The Advancement Of Science,  recent studies have shown that other animals may actually be quicker and more skilled at momentary tasks. Yet as the following quote suggests this may because of "a tradeoff between memory and language" in the human brain.
It would be extremely rare to find a human with the “extraordinary working memory” of a chimpanzee...but the reasons for this may stem from a tradeoff between memory and language. Human language makes memory portable over time and space, making it less essential for us to hold items in mind at a precise moment.“Chimps are living in the world of here and now,” Matsuzawa said. “We [ED: humans] are living in the world, thinking about the past, thinking about the future, trying to understand the meaning of what we see, and bringing the information back to friends and families and colleagues to share the experience.”  
So this scientist is making the point that a sense of time -- past and future -- is an essential part of the human psyche and that this sense is intertwined with language. This unique sense of time combined with language creates its own virtual world, the world of human meta-time and the world of human consciousness.