This spring, when my history students asked how I felt about the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, I stretched to reach my earlier self. Like a fly in an expansive room, however, the past is there, but it’s never where you look. Who can answer, “How did you feel?” when the question requires re-knowing, and re-knowing is revision of what you might have felt?
Scientists say we remember the last time we remembered something and, after the first retrieval, never return to the true moment. You can only recall reading the previous sentence once. Then you are simply recalling remembering it. Each moment, like the one arriving and departing right now, is absolutely elusive.
I read an article by George Musser in the September 2011 edition of Scientific American complicating this dilemma. It suggests we construct time instead of perceiving it. We live 80 milliseconds behind so that each piece of sensory data has already passed. 80 milliseconds doesn’t seem much to me, but delay allows the brain time to work. According to physics, someone 30 meters away can clap hands and the sound will be late. Yet, at that distance, though two hands meeting and their sound shouldn’t be simultaneous, we sense they are. Take one step out of that zone and we exceed the brain’s capacity to mend discontinuity. Motion and sound no longer coincide.
A better example, perhaps: you may have watched something where a speaker’s lips don’t quite match the words. Experiments indicate that, as long as the delay is under 80 milliseconds, we won’t notice. After that, we do.
The article describes other clever experiments exposing narratives our brains create. When you touch your nose and your toe at the same time, the sensory data arrives at the same time though the route from nose to brain is appreciably shorter. David Eagleman, a neurologist studying time, rigged up a light that, when you press a button, blinks after a slight delay. After 10 or so tries, the subjects’ brains align the button and the light—they appear consonant. Then when the lag decreases, subjects think the light blinks before they press.
This microcosmic failing is relevant to my macrocosmic memory of 1968. We’re hard-wired to construct reality from signs, to fix memory with prejudice. Another of Eagleman’s flashing light experiments asks observers to assess the duration a light stays on. The first occurrence or one that broke a pattern seems to last longer. Our narratives are sensitive to novelty, they gather impressions with significant bias, and we gain confidence when we’re sure we’ve experienced something distinctive.
It’s easy to remember Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was 10 and lived in coastal Texas. It was early in my summer vacation. When I got up, the television was on, and my mother told me RFK had been shot and would likely die. The heat had already come, and, when I went outside, I felt—for maybe the first time—frightened by the world I occupied. Only part of it was the day’s news or Martin Luther King’s assassination two months before. Sitting on the curb, I thought about why Texas had to be so hot and whether the earth could ever be too hot to leave my house.
I may be inventing this scene. Neurologists say thoughts of past and future illuminate the same parts of our brains. Looking forward requires fabrication and so does looking back.
Malcolm MacIver, another scientist mentioned in the article, speculates evolution favors animals whose sensory volume (how far they can see, hear, smell, etc.) exceeds their motor volume (how well they move in the space they occupy). Consciousness itself, he argues, springs from knowing where we are according to where we’ve been and a plan to take advantage of what’s ahead. It’s all one big survival game relying on surmise.
My sensory volume is huge, doubled by my creative volume. Those most desperate for narratives are most susceptible to delusion. I seek comfort, and, if circumstances are uncomfortable, I at least think I know the trouble. I can’t answer my students’ questions about the ugly history I experienced, but I like thinking I can. Picture a 10 year-old sitting on the curb, sun baking him before noon, and perhaps that feels true to you.
He may not be me.
Memory is complicated to the point of deception. I see the world as through a telescope or periscope or microscope. My brain—our brains—make sense of observations we sometimes call “history.” We try to straighten out the past before we write it into books but never revisit the thing itself. We can’t.
We are time travelers only in our imaginations.