Living in the Now With Choices for the Future

How does a sense of time separate past from present, and present from future?

Posted Oct 12, 2020

Joseph Mazur
Now, Then, Later
Source: Joseph Mazur

Experimental psychology theories of time perception are not without dispute, but they do bring up some interesting suggestions about time perception links to time-consciousness and unconsciousness links to body rhythms and heartbeat. We have theories that animals share some time instincts with humans. That should not be surprising; after all, we share some of the same survival instinct tools.

Time management is believed to be centralized in the same area of the brain that processes anxieties, fears, and rewards. The regular rhythms of the body—heartbeat, respiration, pain, temperature, and emotion—contribute to a “Gestalt” perception of time. That perception is not likely to be a fully conscious one, since there are many apparent and hidden factors involving brain mechanisms synchronizing internal cell timings that contribute to our conscious sense of time.

We modern humans do not have the same abundance of instincts that other animals have. Our consciousness is perpetually advancing through learning appropriate behavior for survival; so we no longer have much need for many of the survival instincts afforded to our primordial ancestors living in caves. We still, however, retain some of those instincts, but others had been replaced by our ever-evolving skills and powers of learning. 

The brain’s task is to guide the body it controls through a world of shifting conditions and sudden surprises, so it must gather information from the world and use it swiftly to ‘produce future’—to extract anticipations in order to stay one step ahead of disaster. 

Those are the words of the American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. I interpret them as saying that the brain is constantly processing all the hums of temporal information and using them to make advance predictions of the future to maximize all opportunities for the best chance of survival. As with all animals, we are in tune with the welfares and dangers of the physical world; for us, the distinction is cognizance. For us, it is not just about survival. We want to survive with happiness, or at least, with little conflict and the least possible strife.

We live in a barrage of present instants, the nows that come fast and disappear into memory closets of the brain. In healthy brains, memories of new entries are neither erased nor confused by the rapid-speed onslaught of fresh events. The future flashes by as experiences of the world we live in mixed with the imagination of a more promising world. We make plans, based on those happenings. They don’t always work out, but they, too, are experiences.

Consider cave dwellers who had to hold moment-by-moment visions of conscious events, orderly pigeonholing them into memory—the birth of a child, the kill of an antelope, the death of a mother. Their whole lives were archived somewhere in the centers of their brains. We can only suspect that there was a time in evolution when retrieval systems in the human brain were not as developed as they are now. 

But let’s think further. Surely, they were aware of the turning of days, even the turning of months after watching so many times the changing phases of the moon. The question I have is: Were their timelines chronological? Or were they just blurs of nows and thens with no temporal order and no recall of where in the sequence their memories of events happened? 

There is some evidence that at some time in the human chain of life, their memories were ordered as if by some library-marking code to enable quick reference. At some point in the chain, humans had some reason to document life for some future purpose. Why did caveman hunters spend precious time carving stones to make pointed spears? What is the purpose of making a spear? 

Those are not questions about animals and tools; they are about anticipating the future and the need for something that will be needed in that future. To have the forethought of making or finding a spear is to have the temporal judgment of knowing that that spear will be used for a future hunt. Whoever makes a spear is not living in a perpetual now life. 

Almost every living thing has that temporal judgment of the future. Trees prepare for seasons, by the rhythms of their cells in touch with seasonal dryness, wetness, coldness, warmth, and sunlight. Birds migrate, squirrels collect food, and bears hibernate. But humans have something that no other animal or fauna has. A human has the unique ability to not only think about the future but also to envision the future, and even to picture him- or herself in that future. He or she can also alter the future by modifying choices that are independent of instincts. We live in an awareness that constantly guards against threats. We surround ourselves with goals for improvement, always, but most emphatically as we age, when we become more and more aware that death lurks at the end.

And especially now, in this now, in these particularly troubling few years, when we have clear choices before us, some grave, some hopeful, and some just plain thoughtless. We are not animals limited to instincts, short in options, and without the wherewithal to alter decisions. We are humans guided by evidential reasoning powers—often called common sense—that should always be in support of shared welfare and merry life beyond these cloistered years. Yes, unfortunately, we have confirmation biases, yet we live in the now with collective rational powers to change the fast-coming future.   

References

Marc Wittmann, Translated by Erik Butler, Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time (Cambridge, Massachusetts: 2016) 132-134.

Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (Floyd Virginia: Sublime Books, 2014), 158.

Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (New York: Little Brown, 1991) 144.