The Specious Present

Andersonville03“Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.” — William James

If you had to illustrate how time passes, what would you draw? Maybe an arrow running from right to left, or a river flowing along? Where would you put yourself in relation? Perhaps you could be in a little boat that is floating along with the flow of the river. When most of us think of time, we consider three main points: the past, the present, and the future, and we see those points as flowing one to the other. Because our brains are awesome, we can remember all the things that happened in the past. Because we are perceptive, we see what is happening now, in the present. And, because we have free will (more on that in a later post) we have no idea what is going to happen in the future, because it hasn’t happened yet and we maintain the freedom to decide. But what if that wasn’t wholly true?  What if we only live in two points; the past and the future?

See, time is a tricky thing to get a handle on. We have already seen how Daylight Saving Time makes a mockery of our clocks.

When is sunset? Depends. Stupid DST!

When is sunset? Depends. Stupid DST!

But, let’s move beyond the measuring of time and focus on our perception of time. Take the present; when exactly is it? How long does it actually last? We certainly can think of today as the present day, but we don’t live in the whole day at the exact same time. We remember what we had for breakfast or we anticipate what we’re going to have for dinner, but we don’t have all our meals at once. In fact, If I ask you to focus on the present, are you in fact thinking of the moment that has just passed? Or are you waiting for the moment that will come in the next instant? So, how do we get a hold of the now?

In an essay from 1886, William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, wrote of the “specious present”, or the present that is superficially true but is in fact wrong. In his research, James found the past and the future sharing a border with an extremely thin present, some 3-6 seconds. It was in that tiny window of time that James saw the now. 

Grandfather Time.

Grandfather Time.

Everything else was either the just remembered past or the very near future. It’s from this that James gives us four points in time that we can exist: “the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future.”

The reason I bring all this up is to posit my (as far as I know) own idea: with respects to James, what if we exist in only two points: the past and the future? Researchers have shown that the brain reacts well before you are conscious of your own decision. According to scientists at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, that time can be upwards of seven seconds. In essence, you are conscious of decisions that have already been made, in the past!

Regardless, Schrodinger's cat is always unimpressed.

Regardless, Schrodinger’s cat is always unimpressed.

It’s as if we are living, breathing examples of Schrodinger’s cat, existing in two seemingly contradictory states of being at the same time, both remembering what has happened and anticipating what is to come.  But never fully aware of what is happening at this very exact moment right now! It’s therefore impossible to live in the present as the present doesn’t exist long enough for us to be aware of before passing into something we remember.

But that doesn’t feel right, does it? How is it that we reconcile living in a constant flux of time? Earlier on I mentioned the difference between measuring and perceiving time.  Certainly our perception of time is a bit skewed, what with our brain playing so many tricks on us. But perhaps it’s how we measure time that helps alleviate some of the disharmony we might feel otherwise. Think of an everyday action that you perform; getting the milk from the fridge and pouring it over your cereal or driving a familiar route home from work. There is, in those actions, a very definite beginning, middle, and end, and they certainly last longer than James’ six second present.

Yet, we consider those as happening, in the moment, and when we look back to that event, it is as a whole. Sure, we think and speak in terms of minutes, hours, days, etc, but perhaps our brain measures time in respect to narratives, or blocks of action. It is in this way that we construct a present through our language and perspective in order to make sense of our world.

In the end, though, time is going to remain tricky. Einstein solidified that time is relative, a concept I’m still trying to wrap my head around. Though we can all agree that ten minutes of waiting in line is much longer than ten minutes speaking with a friend. Maybe how we see time and how measure our time doesn’t matter. Perhaps, the only important thing is how we spend our time.


Exploring the Mind, Brain Scans can Reveal Your Decisions 7 Seconds Before You “Decide”

William James, The Perception of Time

Adam Frank, There is no Such Thing as Time


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