We relate to life primarily in two ways: experience and memory. Our experience is subject to the type attention we offer at a given moment; if our attention wanders we lose track of a particular experience. For example, at a baseball game we might find ourselves distracted by a hot dog vender and lose track of the action on the field. Experience, therefore, is largely momentary as we focus on peak moments; time seems to pass slowly or quickly depending upon our focus of attention.
Memory, too, is subject to the influence of peak moments. Typically, we do not remember every second of a baseball game but, like a sportscaster recapping the game, mostly highlights. The peak moments stand out above the continuity of experience, and it is from such moments and the emotions accompanying them, we construct our memories. Memory forms the core of our personal narrative, the story we weave from sensory and emotional experience.
Experience is primarily physical, and experience determines behavior. We use our body’s senses to interact with the world; the things we see, feel, hear, taste and smell are what we first experience, followed quickly by emotion and then thought. We are exquisitely adapted to being in the world this way and experiences become embodied, which is to say we need not think about them before, during or after our behavior. Our legs remember how to walk, throat how to swallow, fingers to avoid flames and so forth. Connected to our emotions, we select peak moments from such experiences to create memory and narrative. Our sensory apparatus is always in operation, though while sleeping it goes into an internally focused state. Research now indicates that the REM stage of sleep (dreaming) is necessary for the formation of long-term memories stored during non-REM sleep.
Dreaming allows us to create a virtual sensory experience during which we seem to be able to see, feel, hear, taste and smell a world of our own making. Psychology and mystical traditions consider dreaming to be thus illuminated, wherein the self-generated light of “visual” appearances and events may provide a key to understanding our deeper, and often hidden, selves. Though dreams can be difficult to remember, through contemplation they too can thus become a meaningful part of our waking personal narrative.
For nearly all of us memory is notoriously selective, more akin to a series of snapshots than a continuous video. There are those rare few among us who have perfect recall of each and every moment, but by all accounts this condition is more of an impediment to living well than an enhancement. And brain function, we’ve learned, is more about inhibition than excitement, discarding rather than retaining. Accordingly, memory and the narrative we weave from it is mostly focused on peak moments – our experiences of greatest pain and greatest pleasure. We also seek closure and pay particular attention to outcomes.
Unless observed through concentrated efforts of disciplined intention, such as certain forms of meditation, the vast unbroken continuity of time – the 86,400 seconds of each day we experience – is not given our full attention. Our memories of life thus resemble time-lapse photography, forming a narrative arc of sensory and emotional experiences beginning in childhood and stretching to the present moment. We also use our creativity to project that narrative arc into realms of imaginary time: the future.
Clock time is a cultural phenomenon, the by-product of the introduction of the machine. Seconds, minutes and hours are something we’ve created. The actual nature of being is timeless; marking time is simply our process of observing change, though change itself is ultimately illusory. According to super-string theory, all-and-everything appear to be manifestations of infinitesimally small, particular, resonant wave forms lacking any physical substance whatever. The existence we experience, as well as all memory, are embedded within a timeless and uniform primordial soup of elementary harmonics without beginning or end that never changes. It’s not for nothing that physicists call the Higgs Boson the God Particle. Similarly, in teaching the profound reality of no-change, Buddhists offer, “Looks like coming, looks like going.”
The non-reality of time and change notwithstanding, our persistent personal narrative often makes it appear that we remain the same person we have always been while everything else we experience is changing all around us. In this way we each confront, and perhaps learn to relax, within an unfathomable paradox of experience, memory and time.