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3 August 2001 | Draft

Present Moment Research: exploration of nowness


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Presenting the Future (Part 5, 2001)

Neurophenomenology of time

Why is there research on the past (through historians), research on the future (through futurists), and yet there is no research on the present moment in which people "live and move and have their being"? Is there some process of denial in play? It might be considered that social scientists do explore the experiential present through surveys and behavioural experiments.

Given the complex relationship between past, present and future -- according to diifferent understandings of time -- it is surely beholden upon "futurists" to explore all the interfaces and ways through which people engage or interact with the future.

It is strange that human culture tolerates the allocation of incredible resources to the fantasies of astrophysicists in their speculative exploration of the first seconds of the universe -- millions of years ago -- and its probable end, yet more millions of years to come. And yet it is considered meaningless (except to some meditators) to explore the microseconds of awareness that constitute appreciation of the present moment by millions of individuals -- often in the most problematic conditions of under- or over-consumption. Research is undertaken into how people spend their time in hours or minutes (cf Alexander Szalai's time budget analysis), notably on assembly lines. But none is undertaken into the integrity and quality of their experience of shorter periods -- in the seconds or moments in which people dwell -- at the millisecond speed of synaptic interaction.

Apparent exceptions to this conclusion are indicated by comments such as the following by Ken Mogi (1997):

We can obtain some interesting conclusions about the nature of psychological time. Firstly, the psychological "present" has a finite duration, when measured by the physical time t. The duration corresponds to the transmission delay present when the cluster of interaction-connected neural firings is formed. This would be of the order of ~ 50 ms. This time gives the measure of transmission delay necessary for neural excitation to travel across the cluster of neurons involved in the formation of a percept. In other words, there would be a minimum "unit" of the psychological time, with a duration of ~50ms. Despite the existence of such a finite duration of the psychological "moment", the flow of psychological time is shown to be smooth.... An intriguing possibility is that a twistor-like space can be constructed to describe the dynamics of a neural network, and the space thus constructed corresponds to our perceptual space-time. (

Potentially much more relevant is the initiative of Francisco Varela (in many recent papers) to give an explicitly naturalized account of present nowness based on two complementary approaches: phenomenological analysis and cognitive neuroscience. " (The Specious Present: a neurophenomenology of time consciousness, 1997). He provides a valuable review of Edmund Husserl's extensive philosophical studies of "intimate temporarility", noting Merleau-Ponty's concern that "Time is not a line but a network of intentionalities" (1945, p. 479). Varela presents a four-fold model of nowness based on flows and dynamical trends. He concludes that neurobiological attributes and the phenomenology of lived experience are interacting partners:

One thing is clear: the specific nature of the mutual constraints is far from a simple empirical correspondence or a categorical isomorphism. three ingredients have turned out to play an equally important role: (1) the neurobiological basis, (2) the formal descriptive tools mostly derived from nonlinear dynamics, and (3) the nature of lived temporal experience studied under reduction. What needs to be examined carefully is the way in which these three ingredients are braided together in a constitutive manner. what we find is much more than a juxtaposition of items. It is an active link, where effects of constraint and modification can circulate effectively, modifying both partners in a fruitful complementary way.

Varela analyzes this relationship in a later paper (The Gesture of Awareness, 1999) [see also Claus Otto Scharmer. Three Gestures of Becoming Aware: Conversation with Francisco Varela January 12, 2000]. Curiously, in the light of the work cycle argument above (Part 4), he proposes a 3-fold cycle at the core of the act of becoming aware in the moment : "an initial phase of suspension of habitual thought and judgement, followed by a phase of conversion of attention from 'the exterior' to 'the interior', ending with a phase of letting-go or of receptivity towards the experience." Varela sees the phenomenological epoché as "the ensemble of these three organically linked phases", for the simple reason that the second and third are always reactivated by, and reactivate, the first. He provides a valuable discussion of the three interlinked cycles and the obstacles traditionally recognized to some of their processes.

Borromean rings and knots Phenomenological epoché
Traditional Celtic knot pattern
Borromean rings and knots Phenomenological epoche Traditional Celtic knot pattern

It is unfortunate that the phenomenological approach seeks to describe and define experience for academic consumption -- thus effectively denying the reality of that experience for an experiencer for whom such definition may itself be alienating and denaturing. Such descriptions are far from the experience of nowness that they define -- preferring instead to allocate that experience to questions of praxis. In terms of the concern of this paper they give little sense of the future. It might be argued that they lack richer and more aesthetic metaphors to engage any reader and to carry subtler understandings than those embodied in the simpler metaphors they use. It is also useful to question whether the descriptions offered are not in some way culturally bound and whether other cycles might well be relevant to others, or under other conditions.

Anthropological perspective

As an anthropologist specializing in Australian Aboriginal cultures, Diana James remarks (in a private communication, 2001) in response to such psychological measurement:

Thus, as we observe and register the 'present' it has already past and the future is already happening. The 'present' is the continuous 'now', it is not a finite measurable quality, only human perception of it can be measured, and this may change with our instruments of measurement. Common phrases such as 'at this point in time' and 'in the present moment' are inadequate and stagnant metaphors suggesting fixed place and space, it may be more useful to say 'being in this confluence of time' or 'being in the presenting moment'. The notion of 'being' expands the concept of the continuous existent nature of the 'present'.

The western reliance on measurement as a tool of understanding is a severe limitation in our perception of time. Needing a fixed 'point' from which to measure past and future we postulate a finite present, a useful tool for division of linear historical time, but not necessarily useful in understanding what time is. If the future is already happening as we observe the now and the past is part of the now, then there is no separation of time in the 'present'. As Descartes said, 'I think therefore I am,' similarly time exists because it is observed by mind. Stored interpretations of past perceptions and projections of the immediate future influence human observation of the 'present' -- these 'times' coexist simultaneously.

The continuous present of Aboriginal Tjukurpa (Dreaming) has no difficulty in holding simultaneously the past, present, future co-existent. Their 'time' relate to states of consciousness that can be entered and exited at will, particularly with the aid of song, dance and ritual. Rather like the Biblical God, who was, is and will be.

A useful metaphor for continuous present time is a tree. The past is held in the growth rings of the trunk that supports the present, while the sap coursing up the bark is creating the future growth. Old layers and new life force are part of the 'present' tree; in fact it is not what it is except for these continuously present elements of past and future. According to Aboriginal Tjukurpa the spiritual essence held in the tree doesn't die with a particular tree it is already being carried on by the next generation of young saplings growing up around the tree. Thus if a particular creation Ancestor is embodied in the tree their essential essence is transferred to the young trees.

The growth of trees from seeds is also a metaphor for the spiritual entelechy of God or Tjukurpa. The divine principle is often represented as the Tree of Life, and like God is in all creation and manifest consciously in humankind, so trees were created by the Tjukurpa and hold the spirits of individual ancestors and Tjukurpa Creation Beings. We as conscious custodians of the trees must ensure their continuous regrowth.

If humankind is seeking the entelechy of ourselves as a species of conscious beings we may usefully look to the entelechy of the forest. How do we as a species currently manifest the development of our essential qualities of humanness, what are the rare and possibly endangered qualities of our old growth forests? Are these being passed onto the young saplings and are we consciously creating the best conditions for their growth to maturity?

The future is being created now; the answers to what it will be like can be seen in the pattern of growth rings from the past. Aristotle defined entelechy as 'the end within' - 'potential of living things to become themselves.' Thus we hold within our present our end. There may have been periods of dormant growth, jumps in growth due to climatic changes and nutrient supply, but the entelechy of the organism maintains a particular trajectory. Reviewing history the patterns of human consciousness growth are like those of embryonic development observed by physicists Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, 'jumps corresponding to radical reorganisations followed by periods of more "pacific" qualitative growth.' Human consciousness has seesawed between 'dark ages' and 'enlightenment' periods, as always we only perceive and evaluate after the event so we cannot predict how this 'present' age will be seen in the future.

The embryonic analogy suggests that human consciousness of our place in the universe may be like a foetus within a womb, within a human, within a room, within a house, within a town with many houses, each with a foetus... all within a larger embryonic sac that holds our planet as a foetus, within the body of the universe, which is itself a larger embryonic sac....

We may need to seek the entelechy of the universe through our 'spiritual sensors'; the tools of perception will greatly influence what we find. Many religions state that the purpose of the physical created universe is to manifest the inherent nature of it's creating force, the divine. If the divine created all, sustains all and is manifest in all - then god is becoming god.

Typology of experience of past-present-future combinations

It would however be useful to be able to represent the distinction between superficial experience of the moment (exemplified by "superficial" as a spatial metaphor) with a more fundamental degree of embodiment or presence in the moment (based on some sense of time-binding). Arthur Young's insights (see Geometry of Meaning, 1978) into learning/action cycles provide a useful approach to making such distinctions. In the light of this approach, an effort to distinguish 12 distinct experiential mixes of "past / present / future" is proposed in Table 1 (, where a commentary is given. It would be interesting if Varela's "work cycle" processes could be mapped onto such a table.

One interesting way of framing such explorations is to see the moment as a temporal nexus around which attention orbits in a variety of possible ways ( Such orbits might extend into the deep past (history, memories, nostalgia, etc) or the far future (science fiction, etc) on a "real" axis -- and into other (a)temporal directions on an "imaginary" axis (perhaps with escapist games and psychedlic experience as polar extremes). Of significance would be the time spent in the proximity of the moment around which such orbiting takes place. This might be very seldom for distant orbits. Highly eccentric orbits would make such moments of proximity highly unusual -- even negligible to conventional thinking. On the other hand an issue may be ensuring the stability of orbits in proximity to the moment. There are four variants in the physical case: geosynchronous, polar, walking, and sun synchronous.

Such an approach gives some precision to the question of how a person might be "present" or "absent". Some of the options to alienating life in the present involve various ways of being absent -- whether in the future, in the past, or in imaginary worlds. Multiple personalities might then be understood as multiple attention focii orbiting a common nexus in various ways ( The massive use of drugs (notably in the USA) to avoid the pre-sent and make modern life bearable, and more meaningful, also becomes more explicable. This also suggests ways of understanding whether projects for the future have any relation to the present -- or whether they are merely on the "arrow of time" route between the past and the future, without the possibility of any meaningful stopover!

Conceptual evolution in the "space-time" of knowledge space

There would appear to case for combining the processes implicit in metaphors explored above into what amounts to an understanding of conceptual evolution in the "space-time" of knowledge space? This might be mapped by some equivalent to the astrophysicists Hertzsprung-Russell diagram -- which indicates the evolutionary pathway of stars in terms of changing mass and luminosity. What is required is a sense of the evolution of conceptual attractors in knowledge space in terms of the attraction they exert and their visibility. With respect to fascination with the origin of the physical universe, it is especially intriguing in this context to consider how analogues to its first "3 seconds" may be a characteristic of the subjective sense of the present moment.

From this perspective there are cognitive processes in the first fractions of a second of attention that continually form the universe that is then open to subsequent experience as fully made. How does "the future" relate to the space-time of cognitive space? The seemingly esoteric debates about whether the universe started with a Big Bang may be explored for their systemic significance as patterns to moment-by-moment creativity, as well as to cell division. The process of concept formation at the moment of creativity, or of cell division after conception, have structural similarities to insights into universe formation.

There may be a way in which the coherence of the moment may be experienced as a kind of standing wave phenomenon. Analogues to the formation of "heavy atoms" may be detected as the creative process meshes with reality -- suggesting a kind of periodic table of creative insight. This would help to explain the ability of traditional cultures to generate cosmologies through which their reality is structured. In particular it clarifies the perspective from which, as noted by Diana James, Australian Aboriginal cultures are able to live in a continuous present that is intimately associated with a mythical Dreamtime.

There are some amusing socio-structural parallels to the behaviour of Nobel-fanatic gurus of fundamental physics and cosmology compared with those of the meditating gurus of enlightenment -- including drum-playing! Fritjof Capra (1991) and others have endeavoured to bridge the gap between them -- imperilling their careers. To the ordinary person, preoccupation with the origins of the universe and rare fundamental particles might legitimately be seen as being as credible as preoccupation with gods and spirits -- accessible under equally rare and problematic circumstances in which the standards of proof and replication are curiously reframed. It is curious that very high levels of funding are required to undertake such research in the fundamental sciences -- when one requisite of research into the present moment, as practiced by some gurus, is the complete absence of material resources.

One line of investigation is that of grammar as it responds to past, present and future -- and provides or precludes various space-time conditions according to the language.

  Past Present Future


Pasting the past


Pasting the present Pasting the future


Presenting the past


Presenting the present Presenting the future



Futuring the past Futuring the present Futuring the future

Periodic table of present/presence (grammar) -- to highlight the subtle variants (potential)

[To Conclusion]]

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