Tag Archives: experiences

Time travel and rewriting history

decorative paintingI have written in the past about consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [see ‘Is there are real ‘you’ or ‘I’? on March 6th, 2019].  Our memory consists of fragments of images, sounds, smells and feelings from the past that we can re-assemble into a complete experience often triggered by something in the present that resembles a fragment of a past experience.  We can time travel in our minds by thinking about the past.  It is so ubiquitous that we barely stop to think about it. Yet, we are fascinated by the possibility of time travel into the future.  However, our subconscious minds are constantly time traveling into the future [see ‘Predicting the future through holistic awareness’ on January 6th, 2021].  They are constantly making predictions about what will happen next, whether anticipating the path taken by a ball so that your hand can be positioned to catch it or picking up an umbrella as you leave the house so that you do not get soaked when it rains later in the day.  The further we attempt travel into the future the less dependable our predictions become and I suspect the same is true for travel backwards in time.  The reliability of our recollection of past experiences become less as time and entropy erode the connections between the fragments in our mind so that we struggle to reassemble all of the fragments in the correct order and our personal history is unintentional rewritten.

Source:

Stefan Klein, We are all stardust, Melbourne: Scribe, 2015  (a conversation with Hannah Monyer on memory entitled ‘Do You Remember?’).

Shaping the mind during COVID-19

Books on a window sillIf you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’.  It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland.  Although it is  short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it.  However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology.  Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness.  Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’.  It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations.  I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.

Source:

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 2014 (first published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press)

 

Preparing for winter

I had been queueing slowly up the steps to board a plane thinking about nothing in particular when, as I stepped into the plane, one of cabin staff said to me ‘Are you getting ready for winter?’  I looked at her somewhat perplexed because it was only September, and she pointed to the book that I was holding ready to read on the flight home.  It was ‘Winter’ by Ali Smith.  It is a novel with much to say on many issues.

One of the central characters in the novel, Art writes a blog and someone challenges him to write about a real thing, something that he remembers happening and not a blog thing.  He describes a real childhood memory and when it is suggested that he should write about it, his response is he could never put something like that on-line because ‘it’s way to real’.  I have some empathy with Art, because it can be difficult writing about your thoughts and memories for anyone to read.  However, I have noticed that the readership of the blog goes up when I do write about such things [see for example ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018 or ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018].  So, if people are interested  perhaps I should do it more often.

Another passage that resonated with me was about age.  The narrator is her sixties, which I will be soon, and comments that ‘You never stop being yourself on the inside whatever age people think you are by looking at you from the outside.’  I think that this is true but perhaps difficult to reconcile with consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [see ‘Is there a real ‘you’ or ‘I’‘ on March 6th, 2019]

Source: Ali Smith, Winter, London: Penguin Books, 2018 (see pages 188-9 for Art recalling his childhood memory and page 251 for discussion about being in your sixties).

Is there a real ‘you’ or ‘I’?

I have written recently about time and consciousness [see ‘Time at the heart of our problems‘ on January 30th, 2019 and ‘Limits of imagination‘ on February 13th, 2019].  We perceive some things as almost constant or changeless, such as trees and landscapes; however, that is just a consequence of our perception of time.  Nothing that is in equilibrium, and hence unchanging, can be alive.  The laws of thermodynamics tell us that disequilibrium is fundamental in driving all processes including life.  Our perception of experience arises from registering changes in the flow of sensory information to our brains and as well as changes in the networks of neurons in our brains.  Hence, both time and complexity appear to be essential ingredients for consciousness. Even when we sit motionless watching an apparently unchanging scene, as a consequence of the endless motion of connections and signals in our brains, our minds are teeming with activity, churning through great jumbles of ideas, memories and thoughts.  Next time you are sitting quietly, try to find ‘you’; not the things that you do or experience but the elusive ‘I’.  We assume that the elusive ‘I’ is there, but most of us find nothing when we look for it.  Julian Baggini has suggested that the “I” is ‘a nothing, contentless centre around which experiences flutter like butterflies.’

Sources:

Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.

Czerski H, Storm in a teacup:the physics of everyday life, London: Penguin Random House, 2016.

Godfrey-Smith P, Other minds: the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life, London: William Collins, 2018.

Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.