Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Now without Then

The list of characteristics unique to humans could probably be ticked off with the fingers of one hand without risking using them all. Culture, language, tools, altruism, grief all have their counterparts in other animals. The differences are in degree only, not kind.

The sense of time, though, may well be categorically unique to humans. The notion of past, present, future, and our place that stream appears completely alien to all other animals. Yet it is a characteristic so intrinsic and unique to us that it may well qualify as the sine qua non of humanity.

This obituary in The Economist, unlike most that summarize the lives of the noble or notorious, tells the story of a man who stood outside of time.

Henry M. started suffering epileptic seizures as a teenager. By the time he reached his late twenties, he was suffering nearly 11 per day. He had to take anti-convulsants in near toxic quantities for them to have any effect whatsoever.
It was 1953 and psychosurgery—which was later to be banned, or at least restricted, in many countries—was at the height of its popularity. Scoville himself had performed frontal lobotomies, though he was dissatisfied with the way they blunted his patients’ emotions.

In some ways H.M. was a product of that dissatisfaction, because Scoville had been working on a new, experimental operation, and he decided to try it on H.M. He would remove his medial temporal lobes (one on each side of the brain), the presumed origin of his seizures. Each lobe includes an amygdala and a seahorse-shaped structure called the hippocampus.

The operation was successful: H.M. experienced only two serious seizures during the subsequent year. But this happy outcome came at a terrible price. From the date of the operation he was unable to form new memories, and he also lost many of the memories he had laid down before it. Although he could recall the Wall Street crash and the second world war, he was left with no autobiographical memories at all. Having seen the effects of his handiwork, a shocked Scoville began to campaign against the operation. This meant that H.M. was the only person ever to undergo it.
No memories. None. No notion of what he had said or done, or who he had met. To him, his own face in a mirror was that of a virtual stranger.

In order to think about how we experience time, a nautical metaphor helps: our future course is completely opaque to us, every instant is the bow cutting the water, and becomes part of our wake -- our store of memories -- the very moment we experience it.

Yet H.M., essentially normal in all other respects, was completely unmoored from time, with nothing for him between the present and an increasingly distant, pre-operation, past.

There is no guarantee of anything. I may not survive to finish this sentence, or you to read it. This notion of time is, thought about too clearly or for too long, is a burden that is uniquely human, and for all save H.M., inescapable.

Sometimes I envy him.


Blogger Bret said...

I have a few comments:

A number of people who've suffered from brain injury/trauma also have had the side effect of being unable to form new memories. My understanding is that each and every day begins with a total freakout because the person ends up (eventually) waking in a different place than they remembered with different (or older) people than they remembered, and unlike Henry M, their capacity for (freakout) emotions are not necessarily diminished. A video can be played for them to explain to them what happened and to catch them up on the major events that happened since their last memory formed. Also, like Henry M., they often have a "sense of familiarity" with the things around them, even if they can't explicitly remember any of it, which also helps reduce the intensity of the freakout.

I would find it extremely hard to envy someone like this.

I'm not sure that the ability to form memories and the ability to sense time are one and the same thing. For example, since Henry M. was able to perform tasks (like drawing stars between parallel lines) and having conversations, I'd guess that he sensed the passage of time during the completion of those tasks. In other words, he was doing something over a period of time. Also, he remembered some old events (e.g. stock market crash) and those events might well have been ordered requiring a sense of time.

I suspect that at least some animals, for example primates, may have ordered memories and sense the passage of time, at least at a primitive level.

If at a primitive level, I suspect it's not all that different than primitive humans. I've read (can't find a link now), that some tribes believe that time does not pass. Rather it cycles, where everything just repeats over and over, and everybody is reborn and lives the same life. While that may be true on the scale of infinity, their beliefs were over a much shorter time frame (years).

So my guess is that the sense of time is not a uniquely human ability either.

May 06, 2009 12:15 PM  
Blogger Gaw said...

Sorry to see you in such a melancholy mood, Skipper.

Re Bret's last observation about the primitive cyclical view of time: this seems very like Nietsche's idea of the eternal recurrence. However, (for what it's worth) I interpret this idea as being metaphorical rather than literal in that he's proposing that one should savour life - the bad bits as well as the good - so much that one would be ready to live one's life again and again and again. Given what a miserable time Nietsche had, certainly in his later years, this seems a heroic, but potentially inspiring, proposition.

Perhaps to cheer you up, Skip, you should have a go at Thus Spake Zarathustra? Or watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which seems to work some of these thoughts through. And has a happy ending.

May 06, 2009 1:01 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, GAW is right. You're the skipper and we need you -- although forgetting some past stuff wouldn't hurt, if we forget too much, we wouldn't be the same people.

May 06, 2009 7:28 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I would find it extremely hard to envy someone like this.Knowing nothing about HM beyond the obit, it is all too easy to conclude from very little information many details about his life, or about what it must have been like to be him: a cautionary note to myself, not you. With that firmly in mind:

Ignorance is bliss.

The inability to form memories does not mean he could not sense the passage of time; rather, he must have been completely unable to place himself within that flow. Without memory, how could one know what it is like to have been younger?

Granted, he still maintained many, though not all, memories formed before the operation. But after that, how does he place himself with respect to yesterday, never mind the day before? And, without any sense of one's place in time, the notion of growing old, and all that entails, must be equally foreign. Except for some distant past brought to a halt a long time ago, there is nothing more than a succession of moments, with no basis from which to distinguish one from the other.

Like the rest of us he could not see the way ahead. Unlike the rest of us, though, he had no way to tell where he had been.

To be rather blunt about it, I think he is worthy of envy in roughly the same way my dog is (and in a way the obituary itself disapproved): he has no sense of what the must come, what time will ultimately take. He lives in the moment.

I am sure that many animals have some sense of time. Migrations and mating seasons would not exist otherwise. But I don't think that any animal, other than humans, has any sense of a bounded future, or, in particular, any notion at all of a past. It isn't the sense of time alone to which I refer, but rather one's place in it, and the inescapable burden that comes with that knowledge.

Which is why I envy, in an abstract fashion, HM, and my dog.

Gaw, erp:

Thanks, but contemplative is by far the better word. I read the obit nearly five months ago, and was really struck wondering what that must have been like. I have been hauling it around ever since, never quite able to get the intra-cranial echoes to translate onto the page. I finally got tired of trying.

So, this is all about looking at something for what it really is, unwelcome though it may be.

Ironically, and I think I use the word appropriately here, brought about by someone who couldn't see it at all.

May 07, 2009 12:42 AM  
Blogger Gaw said...

Skip, just to pick you up on the point, repeated in your comment, about us all not being able to see the way ahead. This may be strictly true in a literal sense but certainly not in an imaginative one.

We all look ahead to project many possible futures for ourselves. We do this by telling stories to ourselves about our past. Memory provides the raw material for this story-telling. These stories rationalise and make sense of today and also provide the starting point for the more speculative stories about our future. This is essential in practical terms, i.e. the need to plan and progress one's life. But it seems to me to be emotionally essential too.

Henry M is deprived of the raw material to tell himself these stories, both backward- and forward-looking. This must deprive him of the chance to invest his life with meaning and therefore deprive him of a huge source of comfort.

May 07, 2009 5:03 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

The term I have seen used for this is "time bound", generally in discussions of the hallmarks of sentience.

May 07, 2009 9:29 AM  
Blogger David said...

As long as we're plugging movies, I'll plug "50 First Dates" which is pretty good and directly on point.

May 10, 2009 6:44 AM  

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