The Indrawn Gaze of Time
What happens when we try to stop our thoughts to sense the present moment?
Posted Oct 02, 2020
Close your eyes for a moment, and try to stop your thoughts. I’m not sure it’s possible, since a bit of light might be coming through your eyelids. There would be ambient sounds following body murmurs, heartbeats, breathing rhythms, expansions and contractions of the chest, and the inevitable nearly silent humming coming from the inner ear.
What happens when we attempt to isolate time as a vacant moment? No sight, no sound, and no outer world? Can we capture the instant of now before it escapes? “Let us try,” encouraged the nineteenth-century English philosopher Sandworth Hodgson. “Let any one try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs.”
If you can stop your thoughts by dampening all background light and sound, you will achieve what William James called the indrawn gaze of time, and what German physiologist philosopher Wilhelm Wundt called the twilight of our general consciousness. Not easy to do, since that indrawn gaze will hardly be fully devoid of sense-content. For most of us, it is impossible to achieve that kind of virtually vacant conscious state. Inevitably, some words and images will creep in, simply because there is an awareness of the task itself.
So the human mind can never be totally void of thoughts, never fully empty. One might come close, by achieving a sense of a rhythmical on-off empty consciousness, And if one does, there will be a sense of time’s passing through the steadily recurring back and forth process of trying to empty the mind and staying on that task of trying.
If one ever does get to that state of almost empty consciousness, the synchronization of mind and body rhythms would give the feeling of time through the beats of the body’s clock. Perhaps that is what time actually is, the feeling of unspecified bodily beats.
Few of us can achieve the state of indrawn gaze. We can achieve the feeling of being in an immediate present, a moment of living, a moment of thought, or a moment of action. In other words, we can sense the now, the you-are-here mark, as it passes with anticipation of what is about to happen next. That is our consciousness looking forward, constantly admitting the present that is always updating itself as it quickly consigns itself to the past.
That said, we are sometimes conscious of the present moment, and sometimes not. In my most recent book, The Clock Mirage, I ask the question, “How do we get from simple instinctual responsiveness… to a sense of time, or at least to an awareness of the separation of past with present and present with future?” The brain is very efficient in keeping time for its self-regulated functions.
In the process of throwing a ball, the body senses information arriving in the brain that coordinates all the muscle functions needed to have a handgrip on the ball. One raises an arm, aims, swings the arm, and releases the grip at just the exact moment to let the ball go and fly through the air to hit its target. All that happens at a colossal speed. To bat the ball, the batter must coordinate responses from body and arm muscles to achieve pinpoint accuracy of the swing of the bat. How does the brain coordinate such a tricky maneuver, a manifold operation that is so well time-coordinated?
Though there is plenty of confirming research on cell protein manufacturing cycles in coordination with the brain’s time mechanisms, there is no definite evidence of any connection between the human brain’s attentiveness to circadian rhythms and the conscious perception of time. Likely, that’s because time has so many forms that no single pathway from the brain can carry the abundance of information needed for decoding at the level of consciousness. Multiple mechanisms operating in parallel are necessary, “complicating the search for simple information-processing models and neural substrates.”
In an 1860 address to the Russian Entomological Society in St.Petersburg, The Russian naturalist Karl Ernst von Baer talked about the “now;” meaning, the moment between the past and future, the shortest inner sense of time. More recently, the German neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel at the Institute for Medical Psychology and Human Science Center in Munich University called such a time quanta a “human moment,” a simple “temporal window for a primordial event which is a building block of conscious activity.”
The human sensual experience of time is an overlap of durations (two or more events close in time), or an ordering of events, or as past vs. present. But all that means is that we are experiencing time as change, a change in events, or as change.
“Where is it, this present?" Hodgson asked. "It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming….”
William James, Principles of Psychology Volume 1 (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2015) 608.
Uma R. Karmarkar, Dean V. Buonomano (2007) “Timing in the Absence of Clocks: Encoding Time in Neural Network States,” Neuron Vol. 53, Issue 3, p 427 – 438.
William J. Matthews and Warren H. Meck, “Time Perception: the bad news and the good,” WIREs Cogn Sci 2014, 5:429–446. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1298.
Sofia Soares, Bassam V. Atallah, Joseph J. Paton, (December 2016) “Midbrain dopamine neurons control judgment of time,” Science Vol. 354, Issue 6317, pp. 1273-1277.
Ernst Pöppel, (2004) “Lost in time: a Historical frame, elementary processing units, and the 3-second window.” Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentaus, 64, pp. 295-301.