On the Illusion of Pointlike Time


Inspired by a discussion on the creation of simultaneity held at the San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.


The speaker was too fast for me and I missed following his change of topic during our brief discussion after the main talk Thursday March 7 at the San Diego Psychoanalytic Institute.

We were discussing the "Three Times,” i.e. “Past, Present, and Future,” and the creation of the eternal/continuous sense of “Self.”  The speaker changed to a discussion of how "Now" was actually a period of time.

I have been aware for some time of the existence of a mechanism which creates the illusion of synchronization in the mind.  As far as I am aware, Western psychologists studying illusions involving motion or changes in state or synchronization between events perceived by different senses were the first to get a good handle on this issue. ("Moving Line" illusion, etc.) I had mentioned that Hindu and Buddhist meditators were quite aware of the creation of the sense of continuous time; however they also were attentive to two aspects of creation of the sense of synchronization that I am aware of. One of these is taught in logic courses, where the distinction between perception and "naming" is emphasized. We see this, for example when, for example, the word "YELLOW" written in green letters is flashed on a screen. When asked what color were the letters of the word he or she saw, the subject will frequently say: "yellow." As we become conscious of the phenomenon, we see that ordinarily we perceive the sense input and the association it generates as being simultaneous.  Thus we think we see the image of a horse and identify it as a "horse" “simultaneously."  Logically, this is impossible.


Often we suppress "perceptions" incompatible with our associations. One of the functions of traditional Buddhist logic courses is to train people in distinguishing the direct perception from the "naming” or association.


The other place where Hindu meditation and Buddhist Dzogchen/Mahamudra meditation shows the creation of the illusion of simultaneity is in the perception of "the space between thoughts." For most people, it requires some training to consciously experience the state of being capable of perception (of, for example, a thought) while not actually perceiving any object.  It is as if (borrowing from the relativity theorists) time does not exist for us unless there is an "event."


Once we become aware of the concept of the (illusion of) the creation of synchronization or "a pointlike now," one finds it everywhere. Interestingly enough, the theorists dealing with distributed computer databases seem less sophisticated in the handling of the issue than some other fields.  I believe this is because of their emphasis on data integrity and accuracy rather than rapid reaction, so that in most applications, they will freeze remote data before they will permit any copy to change, and maintain the freeze until all copies are synchronized. In systems that have to react too quickly to permit the luxury of freezing data, we generally find a predictor-corrector mechanism.  The mind will predict what it expects and then correct the perception as more information relating to the predicted data is processed.


As human beings we are usually unaware of this process when it functions correctly. It can be used, for example, in motion pictures. Show a person a motion picture scene with someone throwing a knife immediately followed by one with a scene of the knife sticking out of a target, complete with appropriate sound effects, and ask if they saw the knife fly through the air.  Usually they will believe that they actually saw it in flight, even though this was never actually shown.


The military have put a lot of work into "data fusion," in which information from sensors having different modalities and time delays is synthesized into the "current picture."  In weather forecasting, an important part of the process is "nowcasting," in which past data from different sensors with different time delays is integrated to "predict" the current situation.  A very old example is using star sights on a moving ship to calculate lines of position - the sightings are taken at different times, but needing an intersection of lines of position to find where the ship "is" requires incorporating the presumed ship's motion to synchronize the sightings.


I am assuming that, with newer ways of imaging the brain, we will be able to actually "see" the waves of information processing that work to create this illusion of a "pointlike" now." Being an accountant, I see the issues every time we "close the books" and use predicted data to make "closing entries" that later are corrected as we find out what the actual data was. I am very interested in finding out more about how we as human beings generate our worldview, and am somewhat hampered by the relative rarity of persons who seem to be sophisticated in their understanding of the issues.