Mental Time Travel

I enjoyed these two Ribbonfarm pieces about human perception of time and how we use it to inform our actions and justify the consequences.

After Temporality

I think it’s interesting how much mental time travel is involved in crushingly mundane activities. As I became a better cook, I noticed that when I got a food idea (a new dish or way of cooking), I would spend a great deal of time mentally simulating the process of slicing, sautéing, whisking, sprinkling, baking. The future simulations “reach back” into memory, collating scraps of memories of ingredient, flavor, and technique into a new whole. Mental simulations are rarely smooth: they hit obstacles that must be worked around, and particular segments must be re-simulated repeatedly. The fabula of a “recipe” reflects only a small portion of the reality of cooking. But it is a very useful condensation, providing a scaffolding for chronesthetic experience. And it is very easy to communicate.

Feeling the Future

Wayne Martin has conducted a phenomenological investigation of the experience of time in manic episodes, including interviews with hospitalized subjects (whom he calls “collaborators”) in the grips of mania. (His paper is not yet published as far as I can tell, but you can watch him present a draft of it on youtube). He reports a particular flaw in inductive reasoning about the future of the self. His collaborators are able to report about many past episodes of mania, and give rich detail about their warning signs and the course of the illness. However, they deny being currently manic (even when their own articulated “warning signs” or indications of mania are objectively present), and deny the possibility of future episodes of mania. They are able to sense that some things in the past are bad, but the future presents in a “mood” of ecstatic freedom and openness. The “mood” appears to overwhelm the ability to distinguish good and bad futures with conation: subjectively, only good futures are possible. The manic person has lost a sense: he is blind to risk, to possible harm in the future. And like a blind person, his lack of perception makes him vulnerable. Eventually he will come down and have to live with the actions taken by a self that couldn’t foresee this future.