3 August 2001 | Draft
Present Moment Research: exploration of nowness
- / -
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. (http://www.csl.sony.co.jp/person/kenmogi/Mach.pdf)
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
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
Varela analyzes this relationship in a later paper (The Gesture of Awareness,
[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.
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.
As an anthropologist specializing in Australian Aboriginal cultures, Diana
James remarks (in a private communication, 2001) in response to such psychological
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
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 (https://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/present/presentt.php),
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 (http://www.fourmilab.ch/gravitation/orbits/).
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 (http://www.ams.org/notices/200105/fea-montgomery.pdf).
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.
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