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How Our Memories Hold the Key to Time

Our memory of events glues the past and the present together.

Key points

  • Time doesn’t exist “out there,” ticking away from past to future, but depends on an observer’s ability to preserve information about events.
  • The function of memory serves to glue the past and the present together.

Every story—including the epic narratives of our own lives—needs a framework, a skeleton. And every exciting story needs a villain. Time fulfills both requirements. For surely something must be blamed for the tragedy that transforms the beauty and vitality of our youth into the crepey skin and creaky joints of our aging selves.

This crime’s perpetrator was long considered an actual entity. That notion of time as an absolute thing, ticking away outside of us, is still firmly in the public mind. In the sci-fi hit, Lucy—the brilliant scientist (played by Morgan Freeman) grandly informs us at the film’s climax that time alone is real. But the screenplay’s writer could not have based that pronouncement on anything found in a modern physics text.

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Our memory of events glues the past and the present together
Source: coffeekai/iStock

Time is Not an Object Like the Shells You Collect Along the Beach

In his papers on relativity, Einstein showed that time is relative to the observer. Biocentrism takes this a step further by suggesting the observer doesn’t just perceive time, but literally creates it. We understand dreams as a mental construct, but when it comes to the life we live, we accept our perception of time and space as absolutely real. But as explained in the new book The Grand Biocentric Design, space and time aren’t objects. Time is simply the ordered construction of what we observe in space—much like the frames of a film—occurring inside the mind.

According to biocentrism, life is motion and change, and both are only possible through the representation of time. At each moment we’re at the edge of a paradox known as “The Arrow” described 2,500 years ago by Zeno of Elea. Nothing can be in two places at once, obviously, so an arrow flying through the air occupies only one place at any given moment. At that moment, it’s therefore at rest. Thus, motion is really just a series of separate events, not a continuous one. Time isn’t a feature of the external world; it’s a projection of something within us that ties together things we are observing.

In 2016 I published a paper with theoretical physicist Dmitriy Podolskiy that appeared as the cover story in Annalen der Physik—coincidentally, the same journal that published Einstein’s theories of relativity. It explains how the arrow of time emerges directly from the observer: that is, from us. Time doesn’t exist “out there,” ticking away from past to future, but rather is an emergent property that depends on an observer’s ability to preserve information about experienced events.

Memories Glue the Past and the Present Together

Time as we experience it has no meaning without association to another point. It is inarguably a relational concept—one event relative to another. Thus, it requires an observer with memory; without it, one can’t have the relational concept that lies at the core of any “arrow of time.” A moment can never pass without the mind gluing the past and the present together. You hear the telephone or the doorbell ring, but it can’t happen until the sound is actually in the past, until the mind compares it to the silence of a moment or two before.

To the bafflement of scientists, the fundamental laws of physics have no preference for a direction in time, and work just as well for events going forward or going backward in time. Yet, in the real world, coffee cools and cars break down. But if the laws of physics are symmetric with respect to time, then why do we experience reality with time strictly directed from the past to the future?

One of the most puzzling features of modern physics is something called “wave function collapse.” To understand, consider the light in your room. Common sense tells us the light is either on or off, but not both at once. Yet, quantum mechanics allows such bizarre states in which the lights have been neither turned on or off. Instead, they exist in a “superposition” of the two states—that is, both “on” and “off.”

Experiments confirm that such “entangled” states do indeed exist. The famous Schrödinger’s cat experiment suggests that even cats and people can exist in an entangled state, i.e. they can be both “alive” and “dead” at the same time. If so, then why do real-life cats always seem either dead or alive?

The answer: “wave function collapse” or “decoherence.” The light becomes either permanently on or off—or Schrödinger’s cat alive or dead—if we, the observer, measure its state.

Time is a Function of Memory

Einstein’s collaborator, John Wheeler, thought that time emerges due to decoherence of the wave function describing the universe, which is subject to the laws of quantum gravity. However, the intrinsic properties of quantum gravity and matter alone can’t explain the tremendous effectiveness of the emergence of time and the lack of quantum entanglement in our ordinary, everyday world. Instead, it’s necessary to include the properties of the observer, and in particular, the way we process and remember information. The emergence of the arrow of time is related to the ability of observers to preserve information about experienced events.

Again, for years we’ve known that the laws of physics are time-symmetrical. Time plays absolutely no role. There is no forward movement of time. So if the laws of physics work just as well for events going forward as going backward in time, then why do we only experience growing older? All our scientific theories tell us that we should be able to experience the future just like we experience the past.

The answer lies in us observers—specifically, in our function of memory. If time is truly symmetrical then we should be able to “remember” the future just as we experience the past. However, the reason we experience growing older is that we can only remember events observed in the past. Quantum mechanical trajectories ‘future to past’ are associated with erasing memory, since any process that decreases entropy—any decline in order—leads to the decrease of entanglement between our memories and observed events.

In other words, if we were to experience the future, we wouldn’t be able to store the memories—you can’t go back in time without that information being erased from your brain. By contrast, if you experience the usual route of ‘past to future,’ then you accumulate memories and nothing is erased. So, a ‘brainless’ observer doesn’t experience time. And it’s not just because you don’t experience things if you lack a brain. It actually goes deeper than that. The arrow of time—and time itself—simply doesn’t come into existence in the first place!

Indeed, as previously mentioned, time is a purely relational concept―and it’s only through memory of events that the mind can glue the past and the present together.

The Distinction Between Past and Future is an Illusion

You’re young in one ‘now’, and you will experience wrinkles and graying hair in another ‘now.’ But in reality, they all exist in superposition. Indeed, Einstein’s spacetime continuum (the “block universe”) contains every possible point in space and in time, meaning that everything in it exists simultaneously.

Think of it like one of those old phonographs. Listening to the music doesn’t alter the record itself. Depending on where the needle is, you hear a certain song. This is the present – the music before and after the song is the past and the future. In like manner, every moment endures in nature always. The record doesn’t go away. All ‘nows.’ Like all songs on the record, exist simultaneously, although we can only experience it piece by piece.

That is why Einstein once said, “Now Besso [an old friend] has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing...the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Adapted from The Grand Biocentric Design, by Robert Lanza and Matej Pavsic, with Bob Berman (BenBella Books, paperback 2021).

References

Lanza, R., & Pavsic, M. (2020). The Grand Biocentric Design. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

Lanza, R., & Berman, B. (2010). Biocentrism. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

Podolskiy, D., & Lanza, R. (2016). On Decoherence in Quantum Gravity. Annalen der Physik, 528, 663-676.

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