“Bark! Hop! Swim! Repeat.”
“What is time? It is a secret – lacking in substance and yet almighty.” - Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
The idea that you and the whole of your surroundings exist in the same time and space is a fundamental component of established sanity. If I enjoy a quiet moment with my pup on the porch, we understand that this bench is here now, my dog is eating her food now, we exhale – now. Time may very well move along on a linear plane, but what about the “now?” Is my now the same as the dog’s now? In this age of cell phones and Twitter updates, we are continually encouraged to “live in the now.” That relationship that soured and died? Forget it, live in the now. Next week’s business trip to Tokyo? Forget it, live in the now. How do we recognize the “now?”
The now is what is “not then,” and “not yet.” The only way we can recognize this potent now is with the human capacity for episodic memory. Episodic memory allows individuals to cognitively travel through subjective time to events that occurred in their personal past. Episodic memory is linked to autonoetic consciousness, wherein we place ourselves in the past, present, and future, and analyze our encounters with these perceived episodes of time. It is through this facet of consciousness that we form our sense of self. We can sort through our memory of self manually through episodic memory, or through involuntary memory, famously illustrated in the madeleine episode in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. What we have done in the past has helped to construct the person who is in the now. This self, this foundation of identity, builds the corner stone of every action we take in a lifetime.
Still, this factor of time, this factor that is all-important in our own understanding of self, is a construct. The concept of time did not arrive ready-made in the human brain with the origin of our species. Time is agonized over in literature; just scan the works of Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, or Samuel Beckett to peek into man’s obsession with this intangible thing that lords over us all. When did we first begin to waste our days thinking about what days are made of? Surely the first humans observed the progression from light to dark and the change of climate, but these phenomena are subject to variation. As a species, we tend to process information categorically, and the passage of time is no different. Thus, seconds turn to minutes, minutes turn to hours, hours turn to days… The “now” is constantly identified for us. It is THIS second, and THIS second. French philosopher, Henri Bergson, in his theory of Duration, contended that time would always elude science.1 In duration, time is not measured. Parts of the abstract idea that we refer to as “time” are not distinct and do not follow each other causally. The sense of duration, which is continuously growing, can only be understood through intuition of the imagination. Once you attempt to measure a moment, the moment is no longer a moment; it is gone, it is past. Bergson noted that once you are even conscious that moment is happening and is perhaps worth capturing, it is already a memory. We live a life of constant and slippery nows.
Oh, you can try to be conscious of this elusive now. You can don gauzy linen and meditate on existence. You can conduct experiments in a sterile lab. You can watch the hands of the clock swing round and round, but perhaps time is not truly an objective mechanism. We have built formulas and divisions to understand when time = now. So, let’s use our episodic memory to recall that moment at the beginning of this text where I expound on my pleasant little lunch with my canine companion. That bench must be in the now, because it has no consciousness of its own, and can safely be put under the umbrella of my now moment. But what about the dog? She’s so cute with her patchwork ears and her lazy sighs. Is she here with me in my now?
Science continually debates animals’ capacity to experience time. Am I projecting on my dog when I pity her for her rescue shelter past? Was that ages ago for her? Does it feel like yesterday? Does she remember it at all? The majority of research tells us that animals have a very limited sense of time, as we understand it.2 Sure, animals have habits, and they respond positively to routine, but they don’t seem to anticipate the future. Of course animals have past experiences, but most don’t have the cognitive flexibility to contemplate these memories.3 My dog, my adorable pup – she is in a constant state of NOW.
It seems like it is safe to diagnose her with acute now-ness. Every moment is singular. Every piece of chicken dropped on the kitchen floor is a wholly unique experience. She loves me like she has never loved me before, and she is frightened like fear has only just become an emotion. Do you suppose now-ness is contractable? Maybe we haven’t constructed time after all, maybe we are all just inoculated against now-ness at birth. Episodic, autoneotic… all of this language is probably developed just so we continually google these terms instead of the now-ness vaccine. Was time and the human obsession with it invented to keep our sanity intact? I suppose I should be concerned about will happen to my construct of self if I ever experience the now. If I live in the now, how will I know who this “I” is? Well, damn. Those phonies who preach to us about “living in the now” have no idea what they are messing with.
What must it be like for them - for my dog, or a squirrel in the park, or a fly on the wall - to be stuck in the now? I suppose life is always exciting when it is always new. Living in the now means you are born and reborn with each second – whoops, except there are no seconds. If time isn’t experienced by everything in our realm, how can it possibly exist? The only animals that have some kind of reprieve (deterrent?) from the now are those beasts floating in formaldehyde as part of Damien Hirst’s “Natural History” series. The fragility of existence is put on pause for the cows in Mother and Child (Divided). The pair is divorced from any other plane but our now. Their “is” is dependent on our gaze. Their lives are now lived out through the clock hands that tick beside their glass enclosures. There is no doubt that we humans age and that plants blossom and die, and we have to have something to call that. We have to have Time with a capital “T.” The knowledge that animals are stuck in the now should frankly, blow your mind. These little fur balls eat away at our hearts and interrupt our sleep patterns, and they have the audacity to throw us off of our time game.
If animals are in the now, they must have the freest form of self around. What if our lives are not a live-feed, but are on a delay? Our minds edit our experiences to protect our sanity, even as we are living them. But what of the animal kindgom? Those constituents don’t have any such shields in place. Neuroscientist Warren Meck has concluded that brain time is relative to individual conditions.4 Animals live without bills to pay, careers to build, and shoes to tie. They don’t have times – nows, thens, laters, soons – to mingle in their mind and sort out. Perhaps the ants in Dali’s The Persistence of Memory have been laughing at us for decades now as paper after paper debates the meaning of the ubiquitous melting timepieces. The absurdity of space and time means nothing to an ant on a clock or a fish in a tank. Maybe Lewis Carroll was in on their secret and constructed the time-crazed White Rabbit as an elaborate parody on the division between time and the animal mind. People preach about how animals can teach us about the true meaning of love and selflessness, but really we should beg them for advice on how to just… be.
1 Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics (New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1946).
2 William A. Roberts, “Are Animals Stuck In Time?,” Psychological Bulletin 128:3 (2002): 473 – 489.
3 An exception may be primates, who may conceive of and implement spatial time.
4 Warren H. Meck, “Selective Adjustment of the Speed of Internal Clock and Memory Processes,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes 9:2 (1983/4): 171 – 201.