Time is . . . Memory?

Fiction author Edgar Rice Burroughs was a prolific writer, publishing nearly 70 novels in his 75 years. Burroughs was the creator of Tarzan, a much better series of books than the video representations and popular culture would lead you to believe. He also wrote the story of John Carter of Mars which is finally coming out of the obscurity it never deserved. He wrote seven different science fiction adventure series besides numerous western and historical fictions. His work revels in experimentation, with the question, “What if things were very different from what we believe them to be?”

time is . . . memory?

At the Earth's CoreIn 1914 Burroughs wrote the first of a 7-book series about a fictional place called Pellucidar, where time as we know it doesn’t exist. Pellucidar’s location is revealed in the title of the first book in the series, At the Earth’s Core. Burroughs envisioned the earth as a hollow ball, with a microscopic sun at its center, another world on the inside of the shell. Because its sun never set, never moved, time was a concept unknown to its inhabitants. Fine for them, but when inventor David Innes accidentally stumbles in, it’s one of his biggest adjustments. (Burroughs is such a storyteller that, yes, it’s possible to accidentally stumble through miles of the earth’s crust to a hidden world.)

I’ll come back to this timeless imaginary world in a moment. But first, let’s talk about fear’s apparent ability to alter time in our world.

My Life Flashed Before My Eyes

We’ve all heard it in the movies. Most of us have never been in a truly life-threatening circumstance. Those who have tell fascinating (and consistent) stories of a fundamental change in their perception of time. Specifically, time slows down. During recall, the events during incredibly short periods of time seem to have taken far longer than they measurably did. One chap described the thoughts which went through his mind when he fell off a roof. It seemed to take a long time, yet physics tells us he fell for less than one second.

Experiments, though, have confirmed that during terrifying events, time does not, in fact, slow. There has to be another explanation for the apparently universal perception.

This is Important, So Pay Attention

That’s exactly what your brain tells itself all day long: this is important, so pay attention.

But only to some things.

Most of what we experience has little relevance. The wall across the room from me is the same as it was when I sat down; the same as it was yesterday and every day since we moved into this house. There is no value in my brain paying attention to it, according it memory space.

Until my life is threatened.

Now What’s Important?

Our brain’s primary job is to keep us alive. Most of the time, that’s about the future. It’s about planning and preparing and slowly, methodically, executing.

When our brain realizes that our existence is in immediate danger, it stops differentiating. It doesn’t take the time to decide what’s important and what’s not. The usual process of throttling input goes out the window. Anything could be important right now, so our brain opens the floodgates and lets it all in.

More memories during a moment in time creates the perception that more time has passed. It turns out that we measure time, not by the clock, but by our perception of the duration of the events we remember. More memories, more time.

At the Earth’s Core

In Burroughs’ imaginary world, Innes discovers that when he’s more active compared to others in his life, more time passes for him. In one chapter, he is separated from a friend, a native of Pellucidar. Innes has a series of adventures, taking six or seven sleep periods (the only real measurement of time these folks have).

Arriving at their shared apartment after what seemed a week of harrowing adventure, Innes expects surprise and excitement, but gets instead a polite nod. Innes expresses shock that his friend hasn’t missed him. While he feels he’s been gone a week, his friend has just arrived from the event where they were separated and hasn’t even had time to get hungry for his next meal yet.

Time, in Pellucidar, is based entirely on the amount of activity in one’s life.

So, if we measure time by the number of memories created… What if we were oblivious to our surroundings, and created virtually no memories at all?

Flow in the Zone

If you’ve ever experienced total absorption in a task, you’ve probably also experienced what artists, programmers, and others call the zone, what scientist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. We’re so absorbed that what we’re doing is all that exists. We forget hunger and bodily needs. We are oblivious to our surroundings, to other people. In short, there is no input, therefore there are no memories.

I believe that this total filtering of environmental input, the lack of anything memorable (literally) during flow is what accounts for the sense of timelessness which always accompanies it.

No memories, no time.

Time is memory.

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