Time’s Gravity

17 Minute Read

[This post was originally published in three parts: First Person Metacognitive; Then, Now, & Yet; and Nowland. All three parts have been re-consolidated into this post.]

Part I. First Person Metacognitive

I have a full-scale map of the United States. One mile equals one mile. Last summer I folded it.

Steven Wright

Before he retired to minister to people’s hearts in a more figurative way, world-renown cardiovascular surgeon and medical pioneer Dr. Russell M. Nelson was part of a team that developed the heart-lung machine. That game-changing device safely allowed the human heart to stop beating during life-saving procedures that could only be performed on a still heart. What if, like the heart, time could stop long enough for us to perform life-changing procedures on ourselves? Swap out a bad habit for a better one; learn a new skill or profession; or soften the hardness of our figurative hearts. Wouldn’t that be a scientific breakthrough worth its effort?

In the 1970s, I was introduced to three-time worldwide Formula One racing champion Jackie Stewart. A mutual friend serviced his vintage roadsters, which on sunny afternoons, Sir Jackie sometimes drove from his hillside villa in Begnins, Switzerland, into a town called Nyon on Lake Geneva, where I was living at the time. Whenever he cruised by in his relatively slow-moving convertibles—my friend had customized the cars’ windscreens after his colleague had chopped their tops—the cars stood out against their modern counterparts. Nearly 50 years later, I can still picture him puttering around town.

Stewart, who became a racing commentator after his retirement, spoke of how, for high-speed precision drivers, at certain moments of a big race, time slows down. In crucial situations requiring split-second timing—think negotiating a sharp turn at speed—an experienced driver can perform a series of intricate maneuvers in what for us might seem like the sub-second time. But for Stewart and experienced drivers like him, our split seconds might pass like full minutes.

Music producer George Martin would sometimes record instruments on Beatles’ songs an octave lower and at half-speed to change their tone—think Martin’s ‘harpsichord’ sound on In My Life; he’s really playing the piano—and to allow band members to get the near-impossible, rapid fingering just right before adding back the instrument at double speed—sample Martin’s and George Harrison’s piano and guitar ‘solo’ on A Hard Day’s Night. To speed up time, Martin first slowed it down.

Another way to blunt time is to slim the amount of information the brain is required to process at speed. In my last post, Once a Mouse, I wrote of how when first learning a complex skill, like driving, the brain intakes a vast amount of visual cues and executes manual actions more slowly when it first encounters them. After these myriad steps have been sufficiently repeated, the brain compiles them to perform on-demand, automatically, like a champion driver or virtuoso guitarist, at what might seem to others as twice their normal speed.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman refers to the brain’s two processing mechanisms—the slow, introductory learning one and the rapid-fire muscle-memory-like execution of the fully learned but now ‘forgotten’ one. System 1, the racing hare, strips information from the more ponderous System 2, the tortoise, to make it available for later use, but at rates so fast we don’t even realize they are happening—think driving away from your home and not remembering whether you had closed the garage door behind you. The older we become, the more events and processes we repeat—driving to the grocery store, enjoying the same television characters, visiting the same vacation spot—the more unobtrusively memorized System 2 routines make their way to the rapid processing System 1 part of our brain. With so much familiarity deeply tucked away as rapid-firing memories we don’t even register, doesn’t it stand to reason that the memorized life—now predominantly a System 1 phenomenon—will appear to fly by our current peephole of life faster and faster? Is that why time flies as we age? Why did the year that just ended—I’m writing this on New Year’s Day—feel shorter than the previous year? (Note to Scott the Director from Paris, Kansas: Try to change up your life every day, every week, to at least give yourself the impression of living longer.)

Like the surgeon who must stop a beating heart in order to repair it, you will learn in some of the posts that follow of a hack I sometimes use for stopping time long enough to fiddle with certain aspects of my past, present, and future self.

I got my first and long-wished-for tape recorder for Christmas in 1969. After everyone I knew tired of speaking into its little hand-held microphone, I set to recording songs I liked that played on my clock radio. Not as straightforward as streaming your favorite music onto computers and phones, back in the day you had to wait for your local radio station to play a song and hope you could pick out its intro quick enough to press the record button before hearing “Tom, get your plane right on time…” The only other available musical source, for me anyway, was the public library where if you were old enough—I had just turned 12—you could bring home an entire album, put it on your record player, lay the puny microphone aside the puny speaker, and, Voila, “streamed” music, 1969-style. But only if your local library carried vinyl record albums you liked.

The word digital sounds high-tech enough but all it means for music is that instead of doing their best to replicate the waves of sound coming from our favorite band, computers, which understand only the digits one and zero, cannot possibly combine enough digits to describe every single point of every single nanosecond of every single sound wave of every single voice or instrument of a simple song like The Only Living Boy in New York. (And that’s not even considering the computational gyrations and massive storage required to create digital video, let alone a hologram as rich as, say, Paris, Kansas.) But computers are anything but stupid; they don’t even try to store or solve the impossibly large. Instead of replicating analog sound waves (or light waves) into a faithful analogy of the real thing—think ‘one mile equals one mile’—computers extract snippets of the original and then take massive shortcuts to repurpose them as a ton of numbers (ones and zeros for on and off) that can be eventually converted back into analog waves before aiming them at your eardrums. Audio engineers call these snippets samples—think Disney animators drawing Mickey’s hands, first at 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM on the tugboat helm; then at noon and 6:00—which, instead of hand-drawing all the transition steps from one state to the next, computers triangulate to synthesize the “inbetween” space—think the brain filling in the blanks between the flickering pages of a flipbook. When it comes to brains and computers, sometimes all we humans need do is thumb a card deck, blink an eye, turn a dial, or click a button. Someone or something else will fill in the rest.

All the world’s offstage.

The temporal momentum of a full-scale map of everything that ever happened or will yet happen is unstoppable. But like the surgeon who must stop a beating heart in order to repair it, you will learn in some of the posts that follow of a hack I sometimes use for stopping time long enough to fiddle with certain aspects of my past, present, and future self.

To prepare, go outside right now and try the following experiment.

Looking straight ahead at whatever horizon you can find, picture a heads-up display—think visual overlay of everything you can see this instant from the peephole behind your eyes. At first, you notice nothing different. You’re looking out from the same one-of-a-kind, edge-to-edge point of vantage as you would every day. But see that nearly invisible clock at the bottom of the display? With your hand, blinking eyes, or just your mind, monkey with it until it displays an hour between 10 AM and 2 PM—think midday, Mickey’s hands on the tugboat wheel, your first driving lesson. Grounded in the moment, you now note that two other panels, one to its left, the other to its right, flank the straight-ahead panel you are gazing at. Orienting yourself to the horizon and your preferred navigational technique, change one of the times on the panel of your choosing to sunrise, the other to sunset. Notice you are now gazing simultaneously at both solar events, their midway point—midday—sandwiched between them. Pretty cool, n’est-ce pas? But before you get distracted by either beauty, come back to the center panel and double-blink it.

Wo! What happened? It got larger—so large, in fact, that the sunrise and sunset panels you were just admiring got pushed beyond your peripheral vision. You are now looking straight into, and only at, the present moment. Like Jackie Stewart, George Martin, and every poet who wrote or sang about turning back time—Jim Croce and Cher come to mind—you are alone in the present, looking at a single image, like the one you see every day. But this time, there’s something slightly odd going on. If there are any clouds on the horizon, they are strangely still. Where there might have been a passing bird or squirrel (or car or plane), there is nothing. Humor me and raise your hand in front of your face; then try wiggling your fingers. They don’t wiggle? You can’t even see your hand? That’s because just now, you have managed not only to slow down time but stop it in its tracks.

The OED defines Metacognition as “Awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes, especially regarded as having a role in directing those processes.” Like a heart stopped for repair, the only way for the metacognitive part of our brain to focus on the cognitive part—think the part doing the thinking the other part is thinking about—is for there to be a schism in the way time works for each part of the brain. Wearing your new metacognitive head’s up display, you are, in effect, standing outside of time, gazing at a freeze-frame picture of your mind’s eye—your backyard, Lake Geneva, or the last frame of life to hit your optic nerve before Time exited stage left and right. In the nanosecond it did so, you broke free from what I call Time’s Gravity—the backward pull of the past, the forward tug of the future. Like a stopped heart, you are, in that moment, at your most changeful.

In his authorized biography, Insights of a Prophet’s Life, Dr. Nelson explains that in medical school:

We learned that if we added potassium chloride to blood flowing into the coronary arteries, thereby altering the normal sodium/potassium ratio, the heart would stop beating instantly. Then, when we nourished the heart with blood that had a normal sodium/potassium ratio, the heart would spring back to its normal beating pattern. Literally we could turn the heart off long enough to repair it and then turn it back on again.

To a far lesser, though similarly profound degree, the ideas I’ll be batting about in this blog, changeable life elements visible in the metacognitive heads-up display you have just given a dry run, enable us to perform, like Dr. Nelson’s life-changing contribution to medical science, open-bone, open-wit, open-gut, open-flash, and open-outbreak ‘surgeries’ we might never have supposed.


Part II. Then, Now, & Yet

In First Person Metacognitive, we considered that in a blink, an imaginary heads-up window into three phases of time’s arrow—its past, present, and future—could be superimposed over our mind’s eye with dimension-bending effect. In the center of the display was Now, set up to feel like midday in the center of our trek through this middle distance, Act Two of a three-act play. To the right or left of Now, depending on how we prefer to orient the invisible passing of time—we might as conveniently have situated them above and below center stage—we imagined this morning’s sunrise as a Then. On the opposite side of Now, we imagined the coming sunset in what we will call a Yet. And when we double-blinked at the midday-Now section of the display, Then and Yet disappeared offstage.

Next time you take your seat in a live theater—I’m skipping large swathes of history here but before there were heads up displays there were movies, and before movies, stage plays—consider that in Greek, the language of some of our earliest theatrical performances, the words theater and theory share the same root. To the ancients, where you sat in the theater determined your theory about the show you came to watch. That’s because on the stage, and in its living analog—life itself—space matters. You’ll know this firsthand if you’ve ever sat behind a structural pillar in Ford’s theater in Washington, DC, or in the last row of a second balcony at a Broadway musical.

In 1995, my sister Emily and her friend Alice had purchased tickets well in advance to see Ralph Fiennes’ Tony-Award-winning performance of Hamlet. When she learned I was visiting a client in Manhattan that same winter’s day, she called to ask if I could find a last minute ticket to join them. During the performance, as Emily and Alice, from their third row center orchestra seats, developed a theory about whether the Prince of Denmark might be losing his mind that night. But from where I sat, my back against a frosty, exterior, cinderblock wall behind the last row of the upper balcony—I was looking virtually straight down at the stage three stories below—my theory of Shakespeare’s tragedy that evening was that Mr. Fiennes was definitely losing his hair. (Ba dum bum!)

When I write or direct for musical theater, before I begin rehearsals I take stock of all the space beneath and behind the proscenium. Another Greek word, a proscenium frames the entrance in the fourth wall through which the audience looks forward (pro) onto the scene (scenium). The proscenium is sometimes depicted as an arch that frames an indoor stage and, more importantly, separates the Now of the performance, from its Then and Yet offstage acts. I need to know the stage’s length—think its side-to-sided dimension—to gauge how much room the players have, as Shakespeare put it, to “strut and fret their hour upon” it, in such a way that I can shape your theory of the play from where you sit. I need to know its front-to-back distance to gauge the depth of the playing floor, essentially how much room I have to signal to you which characters it will be important for you to watch at any given moment. Finally, though usually not as important—most stages are plenty tall enough—I need to estimate height, the bottom-to-top clearance of the proscenium opening, in case any needed set piece will require a certain amount of headroom; and to make sure, even if you’re sitting on the front row, you don’t have to crane your neck to enjoy the show.

In geometry—or if you don’t like math, think Battleship, or dream home design—the distances of length, depth, and height are tracked on an imaginary grid made up of three axes which we label with the letters ‘X‘, ‘Y‘, and ‘Z‘. Along the X axis, we measure side-to-side, or horizontally; up the Y axis, bottom-to-top, or vertically; and on the Z axis depth, or front-to-back. When we think of the idea of a three-dimensional object—the shape of a car, a house, or even the negative space enclosed within a stage set—we can conceive of its shape in X-Y-Z space.

I knew a man, his brain so small
He couldn’t think of nothing at all
Not the same as you and me

Paul Simon. A Simple Desultory Philippic

In his 1884 novel, Flatland: a Romance of Many Dimensions, Edwin Abbott, imagines a world with only two of the three axes we experience in X-Y-Z space. In Flatland, every object, including people, can be measured side-to-side, and front to back; but not top-to-bottom. There is, in effect, no Y axis anywhere in Flatland. Like the title suggests, there is nothing but flatness.

The denizens of Flatland—Abbott calls them Flatlanders—can perceive length (along the X axis) and depth (running perpendicular to the X axis along the Z axis)—think objects you might approach, or frighten off—as horizontally height-less lines of length and depth, a reality that takes readers living in X-Y-Z space some getting used to. Once all the disorientation of such a world is explained—an effort that takes Abbott half the short novel to lay out—a notable Flatlander makes a journey outside home territory to a higher-order civilization. Spaceland—think the normal-to-us three-dimensional (X-Y-Z) world you and I inhabit right now, like for the escapee from Plato’s cave, is an almost inconceivable revelation to the Flatlander. Once oriented in Spaceland, the visitor then speculates about a fourth dimension called Sphereland. In that almost supernatural existence, objects have not only length, height, and depth, they possess a fourth axis (call it W) that somehow—you’ll need a really flexible brain here, or what some have called a three-dimensional projection of a four-dimensional object; think Madeline L’Engle’s Tesseract; to picture it—runs orthogonal to the X-Y-Z axes of Spaceland.

Later in the story, Abbott’s hero, like Plato’s escapee, attempts to convince his unenlightened brother who did not make the journey, that one of Spaceland’s overwhelming virtues is aboveness, the ability to know, for example, what is inside someone else’s home without having to enter it. “You just look down at it from above!” he says to his uninitiated and still height-less brother (whatever ‘down’ and ‘above’ might mean.)

Nobody in Nowland behaves in any fashion. Without the gravitational pull of the past on the future, and the future on the past, behavior, as we have come to know it in our world, cannot exist there.

Exactly 100 years after Abbott wrote his classic novel, Rudy Rucker answered back from the future with his 1984 commentary on, and extension to, Flatland, called The Fourth Dimension. After postulating that the wrong sort of Spacelander could easily break into a Flatlander’s home through its non-ceiling, and that a Sphereland doctor could perform open-heart surgery on her Spaceland patient without breaking his skin, Rucker encourages us to imagine dimensions beyond our own—just not too fiercely lest in doing so we lose our grip on the mental and emotional guardrails of the homeland.

A little less than four decades after Rucker’s brain-teaser, let’s introduce a new fictional place. Timeland. Just as Abbott’s and Rucker’s spatial geography comprised three unique states—Flatland, Spaceland, and Sphereland—Timeland, not a spatial but a temporal world, is made up of Nowland, Thenland, and Yetland. Nowland was introduced in my previous post. It is the object viewed in the midday heads-up display—the present—completely isolated from its sister past and present peepholes. Like the X-Y-Z span of Spaceland, let’s assign to Timeland similar coordinates—call them T-N-Y (Then-Now-Yet).

Finally, just as Sphereland’s fourth-dimensional inhabitants possess what seem like super powers when compared to those of Spacelanders—and who, likewise, operate at a higher order when compared to Flatlanders—Timelanders have superpowers with respect to each of their subregions as well. Like Rucker’s Sphereland surgeon who can perform open-heart surgery on a Spacelander without breaking his skin, Timelanders can operate on the past, present, and future of Thenlanders, Nowlanders, and Yetlanders with impunity.

Living in Timeland will take some getting used to. Like the initial befuddlement of the Flatlander graduating to Spaceland, as you peer ‘down’ at your Nowland life through a zero-temporal-gravity peephole, you get an instant sense of your new superpower. For one thing you can see yourself as you would be seen by someone living outside of time. When you double-blinked on the midday display, you blinked away more than just the concept of past and future. Entering Nowland, you experience an absolute present, one devoid not just of past memory and future intention, but of any sort of behavior whatever. Since all action begins and ends outside of the present moment—all the world’s offstage—what is left of now is really just Now.

Hold onto your smartwatch…


Part III. Nowland

This sentence no verb.

Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas

In considering what it might be like to stop time, we begin with silliness. Were we to visit Nowland, I would not be writing this sentence. (Nor would this sentence, as Hofstadter once self-reflected, be writing itself.) As a timeful event that progresses from stillness to movement, back to stillness, writing is not possible in a place where time does not progress in any direction. But even if writing could somehow take place in an action-free world, there would definitely be a problem with the verbs. As we learn in school, verbs are action words, but where there is no action…

Most English verbs are said to be dynamic or fientive, meaning that they progress, exhibit duration. I drive a car. I reset my clock. I confuse readers when I turn time inside out. A small handful of verbs called stative verbs have no duration; they describe only state. I like you. I am confusing. You are well. The difference between I like you and I touch you is that touching has a duration—even a finger touch to the elbow persists for a beat—whereas liking just, well, is. In Nowland, I can like you. I just can’t touch you.

To get around the confusion of stative verbs, the Chinese just got rid of them—turned them all into adjectives. The common Chinese greeting, “Ni hao?” is the equivalent of the English “How are you?” But word-for-word, ”Ni hao” is directly translated as “You well?” The Chinese stative verb Hao acts as the English adjective Well. (Hofstadter correct.)

As you’ve already seen, donning your heads-up-display and double-blinking on midday, you see no action before you, only state. In Nowland, when I am confused—confusion is, in Chinese, a stative verb—I am not acting in a confused way, I’m just confused. I cannot change my persistently occurring confusion because with stative verbs, nothing persists. Having stopped time, the heartbeat of dynamic verbs—turning them essentially into adjectives—I am, while trapped in Nowland, just a mixed-up person.

I wrote all that to write this. No one living in Nowland behaves. I don’t by that mean everyone behaves badly. Far from it. Nobody in Nowland behaves in any fashion. Without the gravitational pull of the past on the future, and the future on the past, behavior, as we have come to know it in our normal world, cannot exist there. In Nowland there is only state. And that is exactly the condition we want our lives to be in when we lay them on the operating table and ask for a scalpel. For us to examine every detail, there must be no wiggling. Time must stop.

Like Hippocrates before us, if any theory we observe on the stage of our Then, our Now, and our Yet is ever not to our liking, well, that’s exactly where changefulness prefers to make its grand entrance.

When Kahneman’s System One, the part of our brain that converts learned stimuli and patterns—think how to drive a car—into compiled muscle memory, whatever form the brain compacts that memory into can have no time associated with it. In the vernacular of systems, data waiting to be summoned for processing is merely “data at rest.” As already mentioned, several aspects of being—its physicality, thought, emotion, etc.—will be explored in subsequent posts like a heart at rest. But there is another caveat that differentiates identity under the knife from a beating heart. When sampling analog sound and video in order to convert it into ones and zeros, the first dimension computer engineers strip out of the data is explicate time. This is because, to represent time as an analogy of real duration, every second must be recorded in storage, which, practically speaking, is impossible. Wait. Every second? What am I saying?

Traditional motion picture cameras record 24 frames—or pictures—per second, or FPS. (Going back to the flip-book analogy, a motion picture frame is nothing more than a single flip-book drawing.) Modern films—think parts of Avatar: The Way of Water—are sometimes filmed at a higher frame rate, 48 FPS, to eliminate blur and flicker from fast action sequences. (For slower scenes, Avatar’s director James Cameron still shot 48 FPS but emulated the 24 FPS frame rate by taking a duplicate picture of every other frame and then playing all frames at 48 FPS so as not to disorient the brain when switching from action to non-action scenes during playback. Is your head spinning, anyway?)

How can 24-, 48-, or even 60- or 120-FPS motion pictures be analogously rendered into ones and zeroes when converted into digital formats? The answer, at least today, is that they can’t. Not without prohibitively large data storage capabilities. What do engineers do when converting that kind of frame rate to stored muscle memory, so to speak? They strip away time, choosing to sample a burst of pictures here and there—think Mickey at the tugboat helm; now he turns it left, now right—computer algorithms generating the necessary inbetweens on demand. Assuming that the brain, abundant but not infinite, would also seek such economies of input, why would time not be stripped out of what is stored there as well and only added back when recalled?

What we will do in Nowland is pretty much the same as what a video editor would do when zooming in on a single frame motion picture frame—picture Mickey’s hands at 10 and 2—that is, strip away all in-between motion coming before or after, to get a precise look at the full reality of a single frame of life without the pull of time’s gravity. But in the process, the surgeon/editor will sacrifice information—all the inbetweens—in exchange for raw, un-fiddled access. Unlike open-heart surgery, life-splicing, like digital sound, and video compression and transmission, is at best an incomplete compromise. This is why it would be far easier to form a good habit in the first place than to try to rectify a poor one later. But where’s the changefulness in that?

In this post I’ve made a fuss about an idea called Nowland, particularly how time there stands still. But here’s the thing about Timeland: there is no time in any of its countries. That is because, like the superhuman species that traveled from Abbott’s Flatland to his Spaceland and on to his Sphereland, I experience all of Timeland from within my Nowland display. From it, I double-blink left and behold Thenland, and double-blink right to see Yetland. From my metacognitive stance I observe, and to some extent, experience, the past, present, and the future from a timeless perch. It some respects then, Timeland is one gigantic Now.

A place in Thenland I sometimes visit is the spring of 1963 when there occurred a tragic accident involving several members of my neighborhood just after turned six-years-old. On the 30th anniversary of that accident, its account was published as part of a memorial erected to its victims near the site where 13 people, most of whom I knew, were killed when a truck in whose open back they were traveling overturned when climbing an overly steep mountainside. What I learned in the stillness of time as I carefully studied the published account was that a key fact I remember being told at the time, that those who died had gotten into the truck because they were tired of hiking, was just not true. For three decades I had understood that the older brothers and fathers of my friends had died because of a hasty decision made in a moment of weakness. But the article obliterated my sure knowledge of the event when it stated that the truck boarded by those who died had been chartered by the group months ahead of the hiking trip. The new information was at odds with the perspective I had harbored, based on what I was certain was accurate information, for 30 years. Today, further years on from reading the published account, I am still re-processing a theory I formed while seated in a point of vantage that obscured my view of that by-now ancient theater. Standing up from my original seat to change my places, I can now look back at that event and view it as an entirely different play. That’s why I frequently visit Nowland, to look upon my frozen past, present and future from a point of vantage that allows me to alter it.

(To read more about that event, and what investigators determined were the correct facts of that tragedy, you’ll have to wait for me to write my version. Or you can read about it here.)

Coming full circle from a previous post, if our old friend and physick Hippocrates had got hold of our heads-up display of Nowland, declaring the past would be for him getting the Then as accurate as possible. Diagnosing the present would be to look more scrupulously at ourselves as we exist in the Now. Foretelling the future would combine crystal clarity about the Then, with the sharpest focus he could bring to bear on the Now, in order to make the most reasonable extrapolations in his power as he foretold the future.

Like Hippocrates before us, if any theory we observe on the stage of our Then, our Now, and our Yet is ever not to our liking, well, that’s exactly where changefulness prefers to make its grand entrance.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: