Time, Memory, and Experience
Within me is that experience of time, a passing moment, and the creation of another one. Like a river it flows, sometimes tumultuous and fast, other times only slowly burbling along. And like any river it only knows one direction: forward to never look back. Time seems to be intricately linked with all of consciousness. It infiltrates every nook and cranny and is an integral part of perception and those dream worlds created by thought.
But at the same time, there is no distinct stream of experiences I can call time. It is no feeling nor a signal from the senses. There is no mental place in my conscious mind I can point to and say: that is time. It rather seems to live in all experiences at once. When checking my watch I see a change in the indicator’s position and know the outside world moved on. It is undeniable proof that everything changed and time elapsed. Even when I try to lock everything out, sit down, close my eyes, and exist in a moment of absolute silence I feel my body around me. I feel an arching muscle and pain building up until I give into it, and change my position, in expectation of that beautiful feeling of release. But during all of that, there was not a single moment where I didn’t experience change and elapsed time. It seems that as long as I experience time moves on.
And not only that but potentially those three words: time, change, and experience; have even the same meaning. How could I experience anything if not for change? There would only be a static, singular scene that I couldn’t leave; a single world and no interaction. It would be as dead and unconscious as a picture on the wall. There is no experience without change because what I experience is change. I see the cursor blinking on my screen. I see and feel my hands moving across the keyboard, my body placed in my chair in a room that has a changing temperature and sound. Even the very thoughts in my mind are full of change. They change the scenery and articulation that accompanies them. New ones draw my attention while others disappear into the unconscious. The same is true the other way around. There is no change without experience. If a new impression doesn’t make itself aware it simply doesn’t exist and when there is no experience at all there is no change. There is only nothingness, a dreamless night, or potentially death itself, because what is death other than the realm of non-existence? And doesn’t that mean death extends beyond the eons following life to establish itself as the ruling force even before my life began? There was no experience before and there will be no experience afterward. Only death. And when there is no change, no experience, how should there be time? Time is the distance between a moment long gone and the now. It is the sum total of all mutations of the worlds I inhabit between those two places. (A1)
In that river, I am like a boat and I also know only one direction: forward. At the helm is the future, all those potential moments that haven’t materialized yet. In my wake, I leave the past, all those precious experiences never to appear again. And to have a past is a necessity because without it there is no change. If I wouldn’t know the past moment how could I understand the new one? How would I know that a new moment even arrived? Without a past, without memory, only statics would exist and death would reign again. But I am granted even more. Not only do I experience the now, but like an archive, I have access to a colorful and long history of myself. I have memories reaching deep down into the dark ages where the first glimpses of self and consciousness appeared, a time when remembering was established and change found its foundation.
Change, experience, and time are one. They are the bedrock of reality and the self but what puzzles me about it is the question: is time global? Is it evolving in lockstep in every world that exists in my mind, or is it a local phenomenon? When I look at my monitor the cursor is blinking in and out of existence now and then. Visually that is the only change I experience. So, did time only continue there? Every new impression of the mind or senses, every thought would then have its own time, because it has its own change and experience. But maybe the concept of time is misleading. It is so grand and encompasses the whole universe. The word even seems to be too large to fit a single mind. It extends itself beyond me and stretches across being itself. So, maybe I just get rid of it and only talk about change and experience, because then I solve the puzzle. I am back to streams of experiences, some changing in unison others not. Instead of a single river, I have many, an uncountable number of progressions each with its own velocity. But somehow that doesn’t feel right because there is that outside force that creates absolute progression no human being, maybe even being itself, can withstand. We dream of traveling through time like a ship on the ocean but we know it is that: a dream. It is something we delegate to stories and fiction never to materialize in the “real” world because it moves on harshly and unforgivingly. I can close my eyes and visit immortal Rome, I can watch the ancient city coming back to life as it was 2000 years ago. Outside reality doesn’t allow me that same experience. The old days of that city are gone and only broken artifacts tell us a story.
So, there is something distinct about time. It seems like the force that brings uniqueness to the flow of conscious experience. Time is a black hole that consumes almost all of now and through that makes place for the next. Rome is not coming back and nor is the last day gone. All those conscious states went beyond the event horizon. Time also doesn’t give me back my share. I cannot bring back my younger self when I grow old and weary. The distance to death is getting shorter with every change.
Maybe there is a distinct feature of existence that is time after all. It is that divine force coming from without. It is leaking in from this thing which might be physical reality. Nothing can resist time’s constant stream of change, that progression of an infinite number of states taking place every moment. Not a singular universal truth but a fact of every part of reality. And the worlds of within are not protected from it. Thoughts can come in any form and shape, conjuring up worlds that are not possible in outside reality and they might repeat themselves over and over, but never fully the same. There is a memory of a thought’s previous incarnation, of other experiences from that physical reality that don’t exist anymore and by that correlation, merciless time is taking hold even of my inner reality and puts every thought and dream under its rule.
There is that categorical difference between outside and inside. The world without is the true arbiter of time. It will venture on and change even while I am unconscious. When I wake up after a dreamless night everything has changed. The day of old and darkness was reborn and is shining in a new light. I still feel tired but in a different way. A moment before the weight of a day’s work was pushing me down but now I feel drowsiness falling off me. I feel invigorated and as new as the day I observe. But I also concluded that without consciousness there is no change or time. How do I consolidate those two facts? My experience differs substantially from the one I just had a moment ago but I also have the memory of yesterday, of a night, and the ending of a day. From that, I infer sleep and awakening. Memory tells me that time moved on without me. Again, that makes memory the foundation of time and it is the thing that establishes continuity. To remember means to recognize, understand, experience, and feel. It is the thing that constructs any reality because from memory emerges experience. To not remember means to be in a constant state of sameness and death.
Time grows out of memory in many branches, directions, and speeds, but always follows one guiding star: the future. It is an orchestra of a myriad of dreams following their own tact, sometimes playing faster and louder, other times being quiet and slow. But they are always informed by time coming from that outside dream. It is the conductor and I believe the thing that creates that universal experience of time.
One last thing I want to think about is the velocity of time. There isn’t only one, but each stream of change has its own. When I am in a state of flow, when there is no resistance and struggle in the thought that dominates attention, then time flies by. There is barely any experience of a self and what feels like a short moment might encompass hours of my life. I inhabit that state when experience pure joy but also when I encounter a hard problem of a very specific kind. It is complex and challenging right at the edge between the known and the unknown. Not too large or too complicated, because then I would stumble fully into the unknown, and struggle and resistance would emerge. Developing software, my daily bread, and butter, and an activity I pursue now for over a decade falls into that category. Writing these essays not so much. I feel uncomfortable and often don’t know where to go. Thoughts race in every direction but no path forwards seems right. But then all of a sudden a distant light appears, a direction is set, and ideas and words start to flow. Writing, therefore, represents the entry point into a second category: experiences that stop the progression of time. It is a world of constant struggle and suffering and time comes to a grinding halt. No matter how often I check the clock it doesn’t seem to move at all. In this state, I would rather be somewhere else, maybe even someone else. Being in the realm of no time means I left the safe shores of the known and deeply ventured into chaos. But it is also here where “I” is most pronounced.
A1 - What is a moment?
A moment is that singular state of all my impressions. It is a virtual unit that appears when I stop time and take inventory of every object that is present in my conscious mind.
- Essay series index
- Previous: Thought and self
- Next: Memory, Thought, and Time