by Carl Strang
Last winter I posted a weekly series of chapters in a long essay about science and spirituality. I have been doing a little more reading and thinking in that area since then, and so before beginning this winter’s new series (a review of the prehistoric life and geology of northeast Illinois), I want to bring the last series up to date with two additional posts.
The Evolution of Consciousness
The main scientific questions left suspended at the end of that series revolved around the nature of consciousness and the meaning of process (a time-dependent concept) in a relativistic Universe. By “consciousness” here I am referring to a limited sense of that word, i.e., the experience of the specious present. Here again I am borrowing from Lockwood’s review of physiological studies. Our experience of the present moment is a roughly half-second span of time (the specious present) in which we take in sensory impressions, have access to memories of the past and can imagine or plan our future actions. That half-second is composed of 15-20 frames, each around 30 milliseconds long. As each new frame comes into our perception, one drops off the back. Our sense of the passage of time is the result of a given frame passing its way from front to back through the specious present.
My starting point for the next step in this study was the following question. Shouldn’t there be disorders that help us to understand the mechanism by which consciousness spans time and isolates it? The inspiration for this possibility comes from developmental biology. Mutations that cause bizarre physical features in fruit flies, for instance an extra leg in place of an antenna, provide the opportunity for the geneticist to understand how the fly’s body is produced from the genetic instructions within its starting cell, the fertilized egg. Examination of such processes from an evolutionary standpoint provides insights into evolutionary processes and history (the powerful new science of evo-devo). By analogy, then, it seemed to me that neurological disorders might cast light on the physiology of consciousness. This led me to the book Time and the Nervous System, by British neurologist William Gooddy.
Gooddy points out that all of our experience is produced by our nervous system. I discussed this myself early in the Winter Campfire series when I focused on what sensory impressions really are. Gooddy expands this notion to all of experience, including time. Abstractions such as a separate world of three-dimensional space through which we move in time are constructs. We create that world. In fact we live our everyday lives as navigators of space-time.
I was especially interested in what Gooddy had to say about time-related disorders. Here’s an extended quote:
“An example may be provided from patients with Parkinson’s Disease in which (because of loss of brain cells) there is a marked stiffness, with slowing of voluntary movements, usually associated with some degree of tremor. The observer notes how ‘slowed down’ the patient is, with even simple tasks taking such a long while that it may be quicker to offer help. But if the normal observer suggests that, ‘everything is very much slowed down’, and, ‘the time must go very slowly for you’, the patient will say, ‘It is just the opposite. My own movements are much slower than they used to be but they often still seem normal unless I see how long they take by looking at a clock. The clock on the wall of the ward seems to be going exceptionally fast, not slow, probably because I now can get much less done by clock time than I used to’.”
Gooddy lists and describes eight categories of space-time-related disorders. These include loss of memory, loss of an ability to plan or project oneself into the future, the scrambling of sequences, and loss of the ability to navigate in space, as well as changes in the rate at which time passes subjectively as described in the previous paragraph.
These evidences seem to break our experience of time and consciousness into three parts: memory, the specious present, and imagination or the projection of oneself and one’s actions into the future. Amnesia removes the past from experience. A person who has lost both the past and the ability to imagine the future is living entirely in the present moment. While living in the moment by choice is an important aspect and goal of spiritual experience, people stuck in that state no longer can take care of themselves. Lacking memory, the benefit they gain from living in the moment is limited.
Given that these three elements can vary, more or less independently of one another, as a biologist my next question is: how did evolution arrive at the common pattern? What determines the number of frames and their duration in the specious present? Why not expand to, say, an hour’s worth, either by lengthening the frames or by increasing the number of them held in mind at once?
Those questions lead to the following thought experiment. I imagine early life, when animals first were acquiring the ability to move. Movement itself would allow an animal to go to food rather than passively waiting for it to drift by as in the previously dominant filter-feeding mode. The ability to move also made it possible for early animals to escape an approaching hazard. Such a hazard would have to be perceived to be avoided, and such perception would require the animal to possess an early form of the specious present so that the hazard’s speed and trajectory could be assessed. The selective advantage accruing from all the little mutational steps along the way would, over time, produce this result. Falling objects or approaching predators perhaps would require a fast reaction that would be impeded if too many frames were being processed by consciousness or if the frames were too long in duration. The big push would have been the evolution of predation, which would bring hazards more frequently than would accidents. As prey evolved the ability to evade, predators would have to keep pace by increasing the speed of passage of their own specious present. The length of the specious present, in this thought experiment, is limited by the animal’s ability to process information. The frames would have to be short to allow an effective assessment and response. The number of frames couldn’t be too many or their analysis would slow down the response time detrimentally.
Lockwood discusses athletes’ flow (the sense that events have slowed down; this also happens in times of physical danger and crisis) as perhaps being a reduction in the number of frames in the specious present, allowing faster processing but experienced as a slowing of time. This supports some limitation in the nervous system’s processing ability being the major constraint on the length of the specious present.
Returning to the evolution of consciousness, I can see how memory would be an advantageous addition, allowing the animal to take advantage of experience. Projection into the future allows for the avoidance of hazards. All of this implies that any animal that displays these capacities has to be regarded as possessing consciousness. An important caveat is that instinct could substitute for memory and future projection in some cases.
This discussion hasn’t had much to say about spirituality. Mystical experience is part of the input we can receive. Our consciousness and memory can take in and store such experience, but how it comes to us remains unresolved.
That is where my question about time-and-space pathologies has taken me. I’ll need one more post in this series, for now, to recast some remaining questions.