There’s a fairly well-known bias in our judgement process that causes common events to be misinterpreted as being important. For example, let’s imagine that you recently had a fascinating conversation about traveling to Australia with a friend, and it gets stuck in your head (though you’ve never really considered it before). Over the next week you repeatedly see ads for Australian tourism on magazines and television. Many people would be tempted to conclude that this was a clear sign that they should visit Australia. In reality, it’s doubtful that the universe provides us with guidance in such an on-the-nose manner. A variety of other explanations are far more probable, like the fact that Australia had only recently become a matter of personal interest, so there would be little reason to notice tourism ads previous to the conversation. Another likelihood would be that a tourism campaign had started in your local media, and your friend was exposed to it before you were.
Now, imagine that you’ve just written a fairly detailed blog about consciousness and the mindful state (aka being in the moment). Just a few days later, a scientific study about the momentary nature of perception (1) takes the internet by storm. Being aware of the previously discussed bias, I initially figured that there would be some obvious explanation, but so far nothing seems to fit. I always keep an eye out for interesting articles about consciousness, it’s highly unlikely that there is a brand new campaign underway to promote related materials and I wasn’t directed to it by any new influencing force (it was on a few of my favorite sites). I’m not saying it’s a personal message from some mysterious source, but I’m comfortable describing it as a coincidence that remains open to interpretation. In my experiences, the element of chance is as close to a universal suggestion as we can get, so I’ll take it.
On to the study, which was originally published through the open access PLOS library on April 12, 2016. A nagging problem in neuroscience has been the inability to explain how we can experience a continuous flow of time, but studies on the nervous system consistently suggest that our experiences are captured and processed in discrete, static segments. At the same time, scientists have found that we are incapable of identifying two distinct events that happen within 50ms of each other (two light blinks 30ms apart will look like just one, for example). These findings have been hard to reconcile because we shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between events that occur within 51mm-399ms of each other if consciousness is observed in 400ms intervals, but somehow we can. Now, three European researchers have developed a two-stage model that could explain how it all fits together. It’s important to note that the theory focuses on visual perception exclusively, but it may be applicable to other sensory systems because they all feature delays that are within the time-frame of visual processing.
In the first stage of this model, our brains engage in the unconscious translation and reintegration of visual elements, a process that takes at least 400ms (milliseconds). This number corresponds with previous research findings related to physical examinations of neurological activity. So, we know that the pieces forming our conscious experiences must be measured in slices lasting at least 400ms. If the events were any shorter then the brain would not be able to keep up and we would experience time gaps in our visual perceptions. Ok so this makes sense so far, but how does it help us explain how we can tell the difference between two events shorter than 400ms? They propose a rather enlightening solution, that the first stage of visual coding includes (and perhaps concludes with) the assignment of duration to events (like a time-stamp). The important thing to remember about this part of the model is that our experience of time is not taken directly from reality, but is instead coded by the brain and assigned to events after the experience has otherwise been processed. The second stage of the model happens after the final integration of sensory elements (including time-stamps) is unconsciously completed (around the magic 400ms mark or later). At this point, a complete visual scene is rendered observable using the information generated by stage one. The key point of stage two (for our purposes) is that our conscious perception of time relies entirely on the brain’s ability to accurately code the duration of events.
What does this all mean for our understanding of the mindful state? Well, right off the bat they identified an almost guaranteed source of perception bias in the form of a 400ms or more lag behind the universe in action. That’s a little bit interesting and a damn long time on the neurological scale (at least 4/10ths of a second), but the brain accommodates for it by coding its own time calculations onto our conscious perceptions. Think of it like a live television show. The brain (camera) captures a snapshot of 400+ms of the external world, processes it (production equipment) in 400ms or more and makes it observable (transmitter) before we notice that the last snapshot has disappeared. We get the effect of a continuous flow of time, even though a single percept may not last longer than 400ms. Do you see where I’m going with this? Are you excited yet? I am.
Yes, I am saying that I believe this 400+ms slice of observation to be the theoretical equivalent of “the moment”. That’s a big statement, but those are the most fun right? Let’s break it down a bit. The above research refers to three different players in the process of perception (the last two parts are the model’s stages). First off is the actual event that we are observing before the brain does anything else, the second is the processing of the event by neurons and the third is the rendering of the event as a conscious experience. We may expect that the brain assigns the same duration to events as it registered them, but we have no way of knowing directly. As far as we are able to tell, the experience of continual consciousness is an illusion and the external world only exists for a few hundred milliseconds at a time, like a bunch of pictures blinking in and out of existence. Another possibility is that the concept of duration doesn’t even apply outside of our conscious experience. Either way, you have your timeless moment.
The apparent truth is that we are incapable of perceiving time as it may exist outside of our brain’s processing. We’re basically left with a familiar philosophical question: Is “reality” the stuff that initially makes contact with our senses (the external world) or is it our conscious perceptions that are assigned their properties by the brain? Maybe it’s neither, or both. Perhaps the whole concept of reality is faulty. These are some of the difficult but necessary questions we need to ponder if we wish to be mindful, but I’d suggest sticking to a little bit at a time. Maybe 400ms worth.