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TIME'S ASYMMETRY

March 4th, 2022

 

A child has almost no past. The abundance of the present is far bigger than feeble memory, and curiosity for details of now is all engrossing. But as we age, time stacks up behind us. The present grows smaller, compared to the train tail of memory we begin to lug around, growing ever longer as we go. And where is the future in all this? The future is an unknown, and nearly a non-entity. We interact with the future through our plans an expectations, which both grow smaller with age as milestones are passed and the room for a wide ranging set of plans narrow.

 

Imagine if, upon waking today, there was no memory of the past. Say you still knew all the normal things, like language, and human culture - but only generally. Image what would happen to your attention, and by extension, the experience of time? Attention modulates our experience of time. Perhaps time seems to move quicker as we grow older because it’s so easy to miss so much of the moment by being preoccupied with thoughts of past moments? Anyone waking up without a past would almost certainly have a long day with attention so tightly bound to each detail, trying to figure out what is going on.

 

Strangely people are apt to say life is short as they grow older, but with each and every second, life is longer than we’ve ever known. Children, who have so far had much shorter lives never comment on the fact, and it’s the oldest among us who comment on life’s brevity. Are the days actually shorter? Or do they simply seem different because they are compared to past days, that had a wholly different composition, packed with more events and changes, realizations and highs and lows?

 

It’s worth it to wonder how a child would experience this very moment. Not because a sense of wonder is enjoyable, but to ask why wonder occurs for a child in the first place? Adults gaze upon the moment with assumptions piled up from years of experience, and these assumptions not only blind us from new ways of looking at and experiencing the current moment but often prevent us from experiencing it at all as we simply repeat a phantasmagoria of thoughts, feelings and impressions composed during many yesterdays. A child’s wonder is quickly accomplishing it’s own undoing: wonder fuels inquisitive investigation, and once we come to our quick conclusions about this and that, they loose their mysterious gleam. The toy is quickly discarded and something new is sought out.

 

Boredom arises from a confidence that all of these assumptions are correct. Innovation arises when there’s plausible deniability - when there’s skepticism about current knowledge and an anti-assumption that perhaps there’s more to things than meets the eye: perhaps things can be different, but where do I find the overlooked detail, what does it mean, and how do I understand it?

 

Realizations are these abrupt shifts when all the world suddenly snaps to a new focus. It’s a pity they are so brief and take up such tiny slivers of time, allowing for the experience to be somewhat forgotten. Rarely do people anticipate future realizations. How many people are walking around with the thought that probably next week, they’ll think differently about things? Few seem to hold such a fluid view of their own selves - especially as we get older.

 

If there’s one principle about the future that we should glean from past perspectives, it’s that the future is likely to bring unexpected things - which should make unexpected things unsurprising. A surprise expected is not a surprise, even if you’re not sure what it’ll be, and yet everyone is continually surprised and shocked as events unfold. If anything, this perpetual failure to habituate to the unexpected is perhaps proof that our assumptions are chronically wrong to some very real degree. 

 

Perhaps there’s still a very real cause to invoke and practice a sense of wonder - not because it’s fun or childlike - but simply because the only thing we can be certain about is that our grasp of the world is wrong.


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Podcast Ep. 1195: Time's Asymmetry

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