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Present Moment Research: exploration of nowness


Present Moment Research: exploration of nowness
Anthropological perspective
Typology of experience of past-present-future combinations
Conceptual evolution in the "space-time" of knowledge space

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Neurophenomenology of time

Why is there research on the past (through historians), research on the future (through futurists), and yet there is no research on the present moment in which people "live and move and have their being"? Is there some process of denial in play? It might be considered that social scientists do explore the experiential present through surveys and behavioural experiments.

Given the complex relationship between past, present and future -- according to diifferent understandings of time -- it is surely beholden upon "futurists" to explore all the interfaces and ways through which people engage or interact with the future.

It is strange that human culture tolerates the allocation of incredible resources to the fantasies of astrophysicists in their speculative exploration of the first seconds of the universe -- millions of years ago -- and its probable end, yet more millions of years to come. And yet it is considered meaningless (except to some meditators) to explore the microseconds of awareness that constitute appreciation of the present moment by millions of individuals -- often in the most problematic conditions of under- or over-consumption. Research is undertaken into how people spend their time in hours or minutes (cf Alexander Szalai's time budget analysis), notably on assembly lines. But none is undertaken into the integrity and quality of their experience of shorter periods -- in the seconds or moments in which people dwell -- at the millisecond speed of synaptic interaction.

Apparent exceptions to this conclusion are indicated by comments such as the following by Ken Mogi (1997):

We can obtain some interesting conclusions about the nature of psychological time. Firstly, the psychological "present" has a finite duration, when measured by the physical time t. The duration corresponds to the transmission delay present when the cluster of interaction-connected neural firings is formed. This would be of the order of * 50 ms. This time gives the measure of transmission delay necessary for neural excitation to travel across the cluster of neurons involved in the formation of a percept. In other words, there would be a minimum "unit" of the psychological time, with a duration of *50ms. Despite the existence of such a finite duration of the psychological "moment", the flow of psychological time is shown to be smooth.... An intriguing possibility is that a twistor-like space can be constructed to describe the dynamics of a neural network, and the space thus constructed corresponds to our perceptual space-time. (

Potentially much more relevant is the initiative of Francisco Varela (in many recent papers) to give an explicitly naturalized account of present nowness based on two complementary approaches: phenomenological analysis and cognitive neuroscience. " (The Specious Present: a neurophenomenology of time consciousness, 1997). He provides a valuable review of Edmund Husserl's extensive philosophical studies of "intimate temporarility", noting Merleau-Ponty's concern that "Time is not a line but a network of intentionalities" (1945, p. 479). Varela presents a four-fold model of nowness based on flows and dynamical trends. He concludes that neurobiological attributes and the phenomenology of lived experience are interacting partners:

One thing is clear: the specific nature of the mutual constraints is far from a simple empirical correspondence or a categorical isomorphism. three ingredients have turned out to play an equally important role: (1) the neurobiological basis, (2) the formal descriptive tools mostly derived from nonlinear dynamics, and (3) the nature of lived temporal experience studied under reduction. What needs to be examined carefully is the way in which these three ingredients are braided together in a constitutive manner. what we find is much more than a juxtaposition of items. It is an active link, where effects of constraint and modification can circulate effectively, modifying both partners in a fruitful complementary way.

Varela analyzes this relationship in a later paper (The Gesture of Awareness, 1999) [see also Claus Otto Scharmer. Three Gestures of Becoming Aware: Conversation with Francisco Varela January 12, 2000]. Curiously, in the light of the work cycle argument above (Part 4), he proposes a 3-fold cycle at the core of the act of becoming aware in the moment : "an initial phase of suspension of habitual thought and judgement, followed by a phase of conversion of attention from 'the exterior' to 'the interior', ending with a phase of letting-go or of receptivity towards the experience." Varela sees the phenomenological epoché as "the ensemble of these three organically linked phases", for the simple reason that the second and third are always reactivated by, and reactivate, the first. He provides a valuable discussion of the three interlinked cycles and the obstacles traditionally recognized to some of their processes.

Borromean rings and knots Phenomenological epoché
Traditional Celtic knot pattern

It is unfortunate that the phenomenological approach seeks to describe and define experience for academic consumption -- thus effectively denying the reality of that experience for an experiencer for whom such definition may itself be alienating and denaturing. Such descriptions are far from the experience of nowness that they define -- preferring instead to allocate that experience to questions of praxis. In terms of the concern of this paper they give little sense of the future. It might be argued that they lack richer and more aesthetic metaphors to engage any reader and to carry subtler understandings than those embodied in the simpler metaphors they use. It is also useful to question whether the descriptions offered are not in some way culturally bound and whether other cycles might well be relevant to others, or under other conditions.

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