“There are times in the experience of almost every community… when… the appointed leaders… exert their powers of mind to complicate, mystify, entangle and obscure the simple truth… to mislead the popular mind, and to corrupt the public heart, — then the humblest may stand forth… opposing… the torrent of evil.”
By Maria Popova
“Truth always rests with the minority,” the lonely and ostracized Kierkegaard fumed in his journal in 1850, “because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”
Across the Atlantic, another visionary of uncommon lucidity and countercultural courage was arriving at the same conclusion by a very different path, making it his life’s work to awaken a young and conflicted nation to this difficult, necessary truth of maturation. That same year, the thirty-two-year-old Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) declaimed in a powerful anti-slavery speech, included in his indispensable Selected Speeches and Writings (public library):
There are times in the experience of almost every community, when even the humblest member thereof may properly presume to teach — when the wise and great ones, the appointed leaders of the people, exert their powers of mind to complicate, mystify, entangle and obscure the simple truth — when they exert the noblest gifts which heaven has vouchsafed to man to mislead the popular mind, and to corrupt the public heart, — then the humblest may stand forth and be excused for opposing even his weakness to the torrent of evil.
Early in his career as a novice itinerant speaker for William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery activism movement, Douglass had been especially impressed, in both senses of the word, by the example of the white women who so concertedly opposed the torrent of evil — women who taught him the true meaning of solidarity by paying the price of severe ostracism to play a central role in the movement’s recruiting, fundraising, and organizing; women who set aside their own suffrage to take up the cause of abolition and in consequence were not enfranchised as full citizens of their own country until almost half a century after black men got the right to vote; women one of whom Douglass would eventually fall in love with and marry.
Our few friends in that place, who are not the sort to be discouraged… filled me with admiration, as I viewed them occupying their noble position; a few women, almost alone in a community of thousands, asserting truths and living out principles at once hated and feared by almost the entire community; and doing all this with a composure and serenity of soul which would well compare with the most experienced champion and standard bearer of our cause, Friend Garrison himself. Heaven bless them, and continue them strength to withstand all trials through which their principles may call them to pass.
When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, woman will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause.
Observing woman’s agency, devotion and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called “Woman’s Rights” and caused me to be denominated a woman’s-rights-man. I am glad to say I have never been ashamed to be thus designated.
“The brain does not simply represent the world in a disembodied way as an intellectual construct… Our mind is body-bound. We think, feel, and act with our body in the world. All experience is embedded in this body-related being-in-the-world.”
By Maria Popova
“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity,” Walt Whitman wrote in contemplating the central paradox of the self. And yet the most paradoxical feature of consciousness might be precisely the elusiveness of the self in an identity composed of porous, ever-shifting multitudes. A century after Whitman, the Austrian poet, playwright, and novelist Thomas Bernhard addressed this in his exquisite meditation on the attendant paradox of self-observation: “If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, [for then] we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else.”
Nearly a century after Woolf and many turns of the cultural wheel after Whitman, the German psychologist and chronobiologist Marc Wittmann — a pioneer in the research on time perception — takes up these enormous, elemental questions in Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self (public library), translated by Philippa Hurd. Weaving together the phenomenology of perception, clinical research in psychiatry and neurobiology, patient case studies, philosophy, literature, and landmark experiments from psychology labs around the world, Wittmann examines the extremes of consciousness — near-death experiences, epilepsy, intensive meditation, psychedelics, mental illness — to shed light on the abiding enigmas of what consciousness actually is, how body, self, space, and time intertwine, where the boundaries of the self are located, why the dissolution of those boundaries might be the supreme wellspring of happiness, and how consciousness of time and consciousness of self co-create each other to construct our experience of who we are.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the closing verse of Ursula K. Le Guin’s splendid “Hymn to Time” — “Time is being and being / time, it is all one thing, / the shining, the seeing, / the dark abounding.” — Wittmann writes:
Altered states of consciousness very often go hand in hand with an altered perception of space and time… Ultimately our perception and our thoughts are organized in terms of space and time. Extraordinary states of consciousness must therefore also affect space and time.
In consonance with Borges’s timeless refutation of time — “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” — Wittmann adds:
Subjective time and consciousness, felt time, and experience of self are closely related: I am my time; through my experience of self I reach a feeling of time. If we have a better understanding of the subjective experience of time, then important aspects of self-consciousness will also have been understood better.
In extraordinary states of consciousness — moments of shock, meditation, sudden mystical experiences, near-death experiences, under the influence of drugs — temporal consciousness is fundamentally altered. Hand in hand with this goes an altered consciousness of space and self. In these extreme circumstances, time and concepts of space and self are modulated together — intensified or weakened together. But in more ordinary situations, too, such as boredom, the experience of flow, and idleness, time and self are collectively altered.
Wittmann points to one fundamental difference between our sense of time and our other senses, which highlights the centrality of time perception to our experience of selfhood:
The sense of time is “embodied” in a more all-encompassing way than the other senses. Ultimately, time perception is not mediated by a specific sense organ, as happens in the case of the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, or touch. There is no sense organ for time. Subjective time as a sense of self is a physically and emotionally felt wholeness of our entire self through time.
And yet in his own research at UC San Diego, Wittmann located if not a separate sense organ, at least a particular brain region chiefly responsible for our sense of time. Using fMRI, he and his team furnished the first systematic empirical evidence that time perception is encoded in body signals governed by the insula — a fragment of the cerebral cortex folded deep within each lobe of the brain, already implicated by earlier research as a crucial locus of consciousness involved in emotion, self-awareness, and social interaction. With an eye to the delicate interleaving between our bodies and our minds, Wittmann writes:
The brain does not simply represent the world in a disembodied way as an intellectual construct, but rather the organism interacts as a whole with the environment… Our mind is body-bound. We think, feel, and act with our body in the world. All experience is embedded in this body-related being-in-the-world. Or, to put it another way, subjective experience means living that is embodied in the environment and social interaction with other people.
The bodily feelings that are linked to the insula — body temperature, pain, muscular contractions, physical contact, and signals from the gut — are also an integral component of emotions and trigger positive or negative feelings. Short-term affects as well as longer-lasting moods are essential for the modulation of the sense of time.
In fact, some of the most compelling evidence for the self as a temporal entity comes from the various experiments and case studies indicating that people with disrupted mental and mood states exhibit impaired time perception. Depression, which William Styron so memorably described as a “smothering confinement” in prolonged despair, dilates the perception of time to a tortuous degree. Citing a study in which patients hospitalized for depression demonstrated strong positive correlation between the severity of their symptoms and their inability to correctly estimate time, Wittmann writes:
People suffering from depression are temporally desynchronized; their internal speed does not match the speed of the social environment. Depressiveness and sadness, expressed in a negative self-image, self-blaming, and a feeling of worthlessness, among other things, go hand in hand with the intensified, unpleasant sensation of time passing more slowly.
In addiction, time becomes arrhythmic. When intoxicated by a stimulant, thoughts and actions speed up from their ordinary rate but the brain fails to encode these sped-up experiences as proper memories. During withdrawal, the opposite happens — time dilates and expands. Hyperfocus on the present craving for the drug makes the tortuous physical symptoms seem interminable and a dependency-free future seem infinitely distant. Wittmann sums up the cruel temporal trap of addiction:
In a state of addiction the individual loses his or her temporal freedom — the freedom to choose between present and future opportunities.
In schizophrenia, the temporal disruption is even more pronounced — the continuous unity as which the “self” is ordinarily experienced shatters into fragmentary moments that seem to freeze in time, preventing the person from integrating past, present, and future into a cohesive picture of being. Reflecting on patients’ consistent reports of time standing still, of all future perspective vanishing, and of feeling like they themselves are dissolving, Wittmann writes:
In schizophrenia, the continuity of temporal experience and with it the continuity of the self are disturbed. It is as if the “self” is stuck in the present. Time no longer moves on, and seems to stand still. Temporal standstill means the standstill of the subject. Normally we experience ourselves as a unity of our self. Our focus on anticipated events kick-starts our preparations for action. Mental presence means that we integrate past, present, and anticipated experience into a whole that is our self. As conscious beings we are constituted through self-experience in the three temporal modes… In schizophrenia… the dynamic of the passing of time, which underlies the subjectivity of all our experience, no longer functions. Because subjective time “gets stuck,” the experience of the self that depends on the underlying dynamic temporal structure is impaired. Without the dynamic of this temporal flow, the “self” collapses into fragments of now.
Boredom actually means that we find ourselves boring. It’s the intensive self-reference: we are bored with ourselves. We are tired of ourselves.
In boredom we are completely time and completely self — inner emptiness. Now I am I and nothing else — a surfeit of being oneself, in most cases when one is alone, but sometimes also being lonely when being with others.
If time unspools interminably in boredom, it races so rapidly as to vanish during creative flow. In such a state, one experiences the positive counterpart to the dissolution of the self schizophrenic patients report. Wittmann limns the experience:
On the one hand we have achieved something that will be permanent — writing this text, solving a syntax problem in programming — but our life as a whole has almost disappeared for minutes or even hours. We were concentrating fully and completely on the matter at hand, but in doing so we did not notice ourselves: a loss of the experience of both self and time. Expressing it negatively this way also shows how the perception of self and that of time are jointly modulated.
In the seconds of waking up, as the narrative self is not updating, consciousness is focused on something nevertheless: it is the physical self that is at the center of perception and thought, which enables the differentiation between the self and non-self. Under normal circumstances we are aware of our experiences, memories, and expectations, the objects of our consciousness. Below the surface, however, we also have a minimal self, the egocentric anchor of all experiences that in the above-mentioned situation of memoryless awakening is suddenly experienced very clearly, as the usual objects of our consciousness, perceptions, and memories are missing. I am thrown back upon myself.
In such a case the experience of self can be understood as an “ego-pole.” My “ego-subject” is focused on an “ego-object”: I perceive myself. However, there is a fundamental problem here, as the ego-object is categorically different from the ego-subject. If we observe ourselves self-referentially — that is, the ego-subject observes itself — it always observes itself as an ego-object.
In the transition from sleeping to waking we experience the boundaries of our usual state of self. Every time we wake we become conscious of our selves once again; we are inserted into our state of awakeness. But in isolated cases the process of becoming conscious does not happen seamlessly — the ego does not recognize itself. Through such moments we have the opportunity to investigate the enigma of consciousness, revealing how the conscious self depends on factors yet to be determined, which are constitutive of self-consciousness.
Scientific research on the effects of LSD and psilocybin has shown clearly that the states of consciousness involve striking changes in perception, emotions, and ideas, and also in the ways they are described: time, space, and the experience of self are dramatically altered. These changes are comparable only with other extreme states of consciousness such as occur in dreams, in mystical and religious ecstasy, or in acute psychotic phases in the early stage of schizophrenia. The dimensions of mystical experience include oneness of the self with the universe, the feeling of timelessness and spacelessness, the most intense feelings of happiness, and the certainty of experiencing a sacred truth which is, however, indescribable. The latter is the feeling of looking behind the veil of reality and seeing the immutable (that is, timeless and spaceless) truth of the world in its entirety.
Research into the mystical experience of the disintegration of time and the self under the influence of hallucinogens is a way toward understanding human consciousness.
When Einstein radicalized science with his general theory of relativity, the fulcrum of which shifted our understanding of reality more profoundly than anything since the Copernican reordering of the universe, he had made several daring leaps of the informed imagination to demonstrate that space and time are interwoven into a single entity — the foundational fabric of the universe — and that both are not static absolutes, as it was believed for millennia, but dynamical quantities responsive to the energy and matter in the universe.
But Einstein’s boldest leap remains obscured by his theory’s name. At a time when other scientists believed that the speed of light was variable, Einstein took it as a fixed limit of nature and made it the absolute non-negotiable around which all other variables and parameters enfolded. Only in doing so — against every common-sense intuition — was he able to arrive at the relative nature of space and time, from which followed other previously unfathomed revelations: that gravity is a force caused by spacetime, that the universe is expanding, that black holes exist, that time ends in a singularity. Relativity was thus built upon this one absolute — a supreme testament to the generative power of limits, of deliberate constraints as a catalyst for creative breakthrough, consonant with Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”
That is what the Canadian astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) celebrates in a spare, stunning poem titled “Explaining Relativity,” found in her sole poetry collection, A Responsibility to Awe (public library). Elson — who made major contributions to the understanding of galaxy formation, dark matter, and how stars are born, live, and die — died at only thirty-nine, leaving behind fifty-six scientific papers and this one slender, splendid book of poetry.
At the third annual Universe in Verse, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander — who belongs to Elson’s rare species of genius with immense scientific talent paralleled by a commensurate talent in an art — brought the poem to life, with a lovely prefatory reflection on his own improbable path, from the black magic tradition of his Aruban high priestess grandmother to his dual calling as a scientist and an artist.
EXPLAINING RELATIVITY by Rebecca Elson
Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors
And the stiff numbered grids.
It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,
Where you, yourself the planet,
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.
This devastating arithmetic of time wasted versus time meaningfully spent may seem like a modern problem, but while the nature of our cultural technologies has undeniably exacerbated the ratio, the equation itself stretches all the way to antiquity, with only the variables altered. (Lest we forget, books were derided as a dangerous distraction in 12th-century Japan.)
Fittingly, the first letter addresses the most urgent subject haunting human life: time, and more particularly, the existential calculus of how we spend or waste the sliver of time allotted us along the continuum of being. Fifteen years after he composed his timeless treatise on filling the shortness of life with wide living, Seneca, now in his final years, counsels his friend:
Set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands… Certain moments are torn from us… some are gently removed… others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.
The most perilous carelessness, Seneca argues eighteen centuries before Kierkegaard bemoaned the absurdity of busyness and Walt Whitman contemplated what makes life worth living, is that of sliding through life in a trance of expectancy, always vacating the present moment in order to lurch toward the next — a kind of living death. He writes:
What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.
Therefore… hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, — time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.
Reflecting on how he himself practices what he is preaching, Seneca writes with Stoic self-awareness:
I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man… I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.