The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

The Large Hadron Collider and the Uncertainty of Time

When past and future seemingly cease to exist

In the search for the Higgs Boson – the theoretical elementary particle thought to be responsible for the conversion of energy into matter – the physicists working the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the giant ‘atom smasher’ of elementary particles at Cern, Geneva – recently announced that they had most likely found the ‘Higgs’, or, at least, one version of it. This occurred on one of the last ‘collision runs’ of the LHC (after several years of operation) before it is closed down for an 18-month refit, and caused much jubilation among the physicists, for it seemed they might have found the Boson. One of the leading scientists described how the newly discovered errant sub-atomic article… went round the 17 mile tunnel circuit 11,5000 times a second! And concluded by saying that, in his view, this suggested that Time might well be ‘a human construct’. Now…. can you possibly comprehend the Time Factor here?

I have talked previously in these short essays about the indeterminacy of Time in human experience and now, from Cern is the scientific revelation that the linear flow of nature’s cosmic Time – is virtually immeasurable, not to say incomprehensible.

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In my last book I suggested that the forward flow of Time may be compared to the flow of a river running towards the sea. And that when walking alongside it there is water behind you that represents the Past, alongside you representing the Present, and ahead of you representing the Future. But then…. you suddenly come to a whirlpool and realize that the forward flow of water has temporarily been halted. The forward momentum of water from upstream – the Past – is engulfed as it swirls in the pool, and its continuance into the Future is temporarily held up (Timeless water you might call it), until it can escape the centripetal force of the whirlpool and proceed downstream into the Future.

So think of life as a ‘walk’ along the river as analogous to the actual journey through Life with its three Time Zones – not forgetting the whirlpools along the Way when Time is arrested…. ‘When Time Must Have A Stop’ as the essayist Aldous Huxley entitled one of his books. For I would think that most of us have experienced something akin to the whirlpool’s interruption of the river’s flow – as described in our analogy – when, from time, consciousness seems to ‘go on walkabout’: the senses temporarily shut down and the flow of linear Time is suspended. These are occasions when past and future seemingly cease to exist – either when one is swept up in a ‘whirl’ of powerful feelings, or suddenly carried off by a brainstorm of compelling thoughts…. or unexpectedly taken over by a condition of inner serenity and quietude…. All being ‘whirlpool’ occasions when linear Time does seem to stop.

T.S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets: Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past. Such might be the ‘eternal present’ spoken of by poets, composers, and visionaries of all stripes; or the ‘moments of truth’ experienced when inspired research is attaining its goal. I would think it was on such occasions when ‘Time stood still’ that Christ knew his destiny; Mozart heard a complete symphony in an instant of time, yet when he came to write it down – with all the instrumental parts involved – it would take thirty minutes to play; when Einstein conceived his ‘general theory of relativity’…. or when any of us become lost in a reverie contemplating significant aspects of one’s life… or seeking solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. On such occasions one lose all awareness sense of Time’s passage.

In The Apprenticeship of a Mathematician, Andre Weil writes: ‘Every mathematician worthy of the name has experienced…. the state of lucid exaltation in which one thought succeeds another as if miraculously…. Once you have experienced it, you are eager to repeat it, but are unable to.… unless perhaps by dogged work .

Neurological research has established that changes in the brains electrical circuitry occur when imagination and feeling bring heightened levels of creative insight to consciousness…. engaging higher neural voltages and greater speeds of electrical conductivity. Try to imagine a ‘full house’ of one hundred billion neurons in action, utilizing a likely trillion or so synaptic connections…. if, in fact, such a complete complement – such a ‘brainstorm’ or ‘whirlpool’ of brain cells – is even required to bring about even the most revelatory of insights. Then ‘….Time Must Have A Stop’.

Terasa Stratas, the famed opera singer, writes in The New Yorker magazine of such moments…. when Time and the World seem to be left behind:

Somewhere, I feel, we inside ourselves, in the human spirit, know everything. We don’t have to read. We learn to read what we already know. We need to re-prove what are truths for us. We have to listen to ourselves…

I would say that she is talking about ‘whirlpool’ moments: about Life as the walk along the river of Time – a linear progress interrupted when we, ‘inside ourselves’, attain levels of ‘ knowing’ as the world of Time and the Senses ‘let go’.

 

 

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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