brain on holiday has moved to a new location!
Bobby McFerrin and the spontaneous crowd chorus.
A Question of Time by Monica Fagan. Oil on canvas 65 x 54 cm. (via One Surrealist a Day)
It’s pretty incredible this found its way on television in 1960.
It seems fitting to begin brain on holiday with a brief exploration of Time. Time is a strange animal and our brains interact with Time in diverse ways. In our everyday lives, it is easy to become preoccupied with a constant worry that we are wasting time, and this has a circular effect: The more time we spend thinking about wasting time, the more time we are wasting. As a rule of thumb, we are wasting time when we are too aware of it. When are we liberated from these constraints? When the brain is on holiday. And so one purpose of brain on holiday is to free the mind from the constraints of Time through new ways of looking at Time.
Lets take a look at 3 different perspectives on Time.
Christian Marclay’s film The Clock initially prompted this exploration. I heard about this film several months ago and was immediately intrigued by the idea. Briefly, The Clock is a film running exactly 24 hours consisting of splices of scenes throughout the history of cinema. What each scene has in common is that a character is looking at a timepiece at the particular moment in which the scene appears, synchronized exactly with the time of day the film is viewed, as a constant reminder to the audience. Alain de Botton in his BBC segment creates a nice context for interpreting the piece.
Experimental art forms are fertile ground for experiments that play with how we think about Time, so after learning of Christian Marclay’s film my mind immediately jumped to another artist’s work that got me thinking about Time: The one year performances of Tehching Hsieh that were displayed last year at MOMA. These one year performances explore various themes including communication, perception, life and death. The first performance called Cage Piece was completed from 1979-1980. The artist is enclosed in a small wooden cage furnished only with a wash basin, lights, a pail, and a single bed. For the duration of the year, he was restricted from talking, reading, writing, or listening to radio or TV. A similar idea can be found in the story by Anton Chekhov called The Bet, in which a dispute arises about whether life imprisonment or capital punishment is more humane. A banker argues that capital punishment is more humane, a young lawyer argues for life imprisonment. To settle the dispute the banker wagers 2 million rubles against 15 years of the young lawyers life in isolation. Later, this was loosely adapted into an episode of the Twilight Zone. In the artist’s second performance entitled Time Clock completed from 1980-81, the artist punches a time clock and takes a picture of himself every hour of every day for one year–recalling the way that Marclay’s The Clock is continually reminding us of Time’s persistence. Read more about the experiments here.
This reminds me of a great story by Jorge Luis Borges called Funes, the Memorius. It is a story about a young man, Ireneo Funes who has an exceptionally prodigious memory, recalling perfectly everything he experiences:
His own hands, surprised him every time he saw them. Swift wrote that the emperor of Lilliput could perceive the movement of the minute hand of a clock; Funes could continually perceive the quiet advances of corruption, of tooth decay, of weariness. He saw–he noticed–the progress of death, of humidity. He was a solitary, lucid spectator of a multiform, momentaneous, and almost unbearably precise world. Babylon, London, New York dazzle mankind’s imagination with their fierce splendor; no one in the populous towers or urgent avenues of those cities has ever felt the heat and pressure of a reality as inexhaustible as that which battered Ireneo, day and night, in his poor South American hinterland.
The Time Clock experiment brings to life the inextricable connection between memory and the perception of Time. With the help of the artist’s camera the effects of Time on the body are made vivid. Similarly, in the character of Funes, we see how his acute sense of detail alters his experience of the world. This is not pure fiction. In the 1970s book Mind of a Mnemonist described the famous case of Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian man with synesthesia who has an incredible and seemingly limitless memory. And more recently, the fascinating case of a woman who is able to remember every day of her life since age of 11 was featured on 60 Minutes last year.
Next, I’d like to look at the other end of the spectrum, looking at the world through the eyes of a neurological patient who has anterograde amnesia, or the inability to form new memories. In March of 1985, Clive Wearing suffered severe brain damage after contracting a case of viral encephalitis. After recovering from the infection Clive had lost the ability to form new memories. He lived his life in one minute chunks, as the one minute passed his memory was reset and he would basically forget everything that was happening in that moment. In his notebook, he compulsively recorded the date and time and documenting that at each moment it was as if he were waking for the first time. If he noticed the other identical notes he would simply explain that he was not fully awake at that previous moment. The case was described in Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks.
A case of temporary temporal lobe amnesia was part of a recent episode of the excellent radio program RadioLab called Repetition.
These 3 perspectives on Time illustrate the deep sense that our memories and perceptions are actively constructing our relationship with time and this can be manipulated or altered through our experiences and perceptions as well as through changes in our own biology at the level of the brain.
One consequence of the web and the surplus of information is an almost overwhelming feeling of never having enough time and I think this has probably been shared in other eras where an explosion in the amount of information available occurred (eg, the beginning of the Gutenberg era). I plan to continue the discussion in a future post with some reflections on the subject of Information and Time. I hope your brain has enjoyed the holiday.
What are your perspectives on time?
Have different experiences in your life altered your perception of time?
Has your sense of time changed as you age?
How do you think our perception of time has evolved with modern technology?
Leave a comment.