Does the Present Moment Really Exist?

ocean tide rolling inI’m always hearing snatches on the radio that intrigue me; sometimes I even follow up on them. One of my favorite sources for these snatches is “The TED Radio Hour” on NPR. As you may know, and as I’ve written before, TED Talks are a great source of short talks on a wide range of subjects. “TED” stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design,” but you can shoehorn almost any topic into those three areas.

The radio program is a great way to get an introduction to some top TED talks on a certain subject. Guy Raz, the host, picks several talks and then interviews the speakers himself, including clips and including links to the talk itself so that you can listen to the whole thing. This past week the topic was that of time, in particular our perception of it.

The snatch that intrigued me came from the psychologist Daniel Gilbert. He’s very interested in how people can perceive themselves to be happy, having written a book titled Stumbling on Happiness which I read some time ago. Part of our perceptions of happiness center on our experience of time. If we’re rushed and stressed, feeling that time is passing too quickly, then it’s hard to feel happiness. But it’s also true that a feeling of time passing too slowly can lead to boredom and frustration. The ideal time perception is called “flow,” and it’s perhaps fair to say that in that state one is unaware of time at all. One simply is, fully involved in whatever is happening, not noticing the passage of time at all. I will sometimes enter that state when I’m in the midst of writing something. I’ll look up from the computer screen and feel as if I’ve been away from the world. An hour has passed without my noticing.

Gilbert’s point in this particular segment, however, has to do with our perception of the present. He asks people, “Which is actually real, the past, the present, or the future?” Most people answer, “The present, of course.” Wrong, he says. The present doesn’t really exist in and of itself; it is simply a boundary between the past and the future. He uses the analogy of a shoreline. There’s the water and there’s the beach; there are only two items. And then there’s the line between the two, but we don’t consider that line to be a thing in itself. So it is with the present. It is constantly slipping away from us, just like that line of foam at the shore. The moment we perceive it, it’s gone.

I recently added an app to my phone called “Countdown.” You can pick any date/time in the future and have the app count down to it, and you can customize your countdown with whatever time units you’d like. So I chose seconds. When we left on our trip I put in a countdown for that two weeks’ worth of seconds, which of course became unavailable to me when my phone was stolen in the Great Vacation Car Break-In. Now I have a countdown going for this week. As of right now, in the immediate present as I type this, I have 388,372 seconds left until midnight Saturday. (Of course the total has already changed.) Having this app on my screen is supposed to remind me to make good use of my time, as it’s slipping away before my eyes. I have another countdown going that I started as of May 22, the day we closed the sale of our house and formally moved in over here. It’s set for ten years from then, since we hope to be able to live here at least that long. I look at it occasionally. It’s still in the hundreds of millions of seconds. I don’t want them to slip by without noticing! Right now I’m sitting here in the upstairs kitchen writing this. The radio is on the CPR classical music station and Jan is out on the porch talking to the neighbor across the street, a woman named Judy who has a fabulous garden and raises dozens of tomato seedlings every spring to give away. I love going over to her back yard to see what’s happening there. It’s a perfect little snapshot of time. But it won’t last very long. Judy will go back home. I’ll finish this article and go run some errands. This vignette will have passed irrevocably into the past. (Did you know by the way, that the concept of time doesn’t show up in physics equations? You’ll hear more discussion of that idea if you listen to the entire radio program.)

So, if I haven’t bored you to death yet (and made time crawl), check out the radio program and Dan Gilbert’s TED talk by following these links:

For the entire TED Radio Hour program featuring Dan Gilbert, follow the link to “Shifting Time.” The Gilbert segment is the third one; all of them are interesting and provocative. You can watch Gilbert’s full TED talk with the video player below:

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