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LATEST DIALOGUES On the Length of Nowness

nownessTime might be an illusion, but the “now” is clearly present in our lives. Experiencing the present as a distinct entity not only allows our brain to track the passage of time but also enables us to interact with the world. “Your sense of nowness underpins your entire conscious experience,” said Marc Wittmann, a researcher at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany, in an interview with New Scientist.

Scientists have a good understanding of how the body sets its daily clock according to the light-dark cycles of its environment, but the mechanics of our perception of “nowness” are less clear. Research by neuroscientists and psychologists, however, seems to indicate that the now that we experience—the “psychological present”—lasts between two and three seconds.

The implicit mechanism that determines the timing of this “now” forms the basis for our conscious experience and contains two aspects—the sense that we live permanently in the present and that time flows like a river from the past towards the future. Underpinning our implicit mechanism are subconscious (or “functional”) components which operate over different timespans depending upon the sensitivity of the senses. Research has shown, though, that when the eyes and ears experience stimuli—such as flashes and beeps—that are slightly out of sync, the brain can synchronize the signal so they appear to occur at the same interval.

It is not clear, though, how the functional moments of our senses give rise to either the now that we experience or the sense of flowing time. Wittman proposes a hierarchy of nows, with each one building on those that came before, accumulating until the flow of time arises in our consciousness. He describes the mechanics of this more in the New Scientist article, but he also emphasizes the importance of being mentally present. “It is the now of ‘I’, of your narrative self,” he said.

Meditators have long claimed to be more fully present. Some research backs this up, with experienced meditators able to hold a given perspective of a drawing of a cube in their mind longer than non-meditators. Meditators also score more highly on tests of working memory and attention. This is more than just being able to focus better; it can shift our perception of time. “Meditators perceive time to pass more slowly than non-meditators, both in the present and retrospectively,” said Wittman.

Other research has shown that when people perceive an event to last longer—as often occurs during traumatic experiences like car crashes—they absorb more details about the event and can describe it more accurately. So our experience of now is reflected in real changes in how we process sensory information, a trait that may have helped us survive throughout human history.

But while experiencing “now” can be a good thing, we should be careful not to let the flow of time distract us from the only moment that we really have—the present one.

“Our self is ever-present now and we do not experience a succession of nows. This present now is the only now there is. The now in which the body was born is the very same now in which these words are appearing. It is the only now there ever truly is. For this reason our own being is said to be eternal.”
~ Rupert Spira – Presence: The Art of Peace and Happiness

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Shawn Radcliffe is a science writer, yoga instructor and creator of fiction and humor. He has written about science, health, meditation and yoga for, Men's Fitness, Greater Good and more. He also tackles the humorous implications of spirituality and science on his blog, Branáin - Ravenously Curious.

8 Responses to “On the Length of Nowness”

  1. January 31, 2015 at 12:30 pm, John Trevor Colvin said:

    I doubt many physicists would say that time is an illusion. A more typical response would be “time is the reading on a clock”, possibly followed with “its metaphysical nature and relation to human consciousness are not my domain” and “Why are spiritualists so often compelled to pontificate false knowledge of physics? They of all people should respect and not blaspheme my sacred discipline.”

    • February 02, 2015 at 5:14 am, Steve Daut said:

      On the other hand, the time reading on a clock is relative to its acceleration with respect to other clocks. So only deniers of relativity would say that time is fixed and universal quality independent of space, so virtually every mainstream physicist today would say that the idea of time as an independent quality is an illusion.

  2. January 31, 2015 at 3:35 pm, mcoke said:

    It’s just a commentary on the idea that any measure of time from within the system is going to be taken from some specific point, John. Because any specific point is arbitrary, there is no valid, nonarbitrary measurement of time from within the system. It all goes back to Einstein’s theory of relativity

  3. January 31, 2015 at 3:42 pm, mcoke said:

    The perspective that this article takes is to point out that there appears to be some biological (or nonbiological consciousness if you want to try that angle) state which remains “open” for two to three seconds which underlies our idea of the now. It can be extended by the practice of meditation but beyond that general time limit it collapses. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with the literature to know if they’ve traced it to any possible culprits yet

  4. February 01, 2015 at 2:48 pm, Mit Jones said:

    NOW is a non-existing point in space without space or time. “NOW” cannot be comprehended through sensory experience and it does not exist in a physical reality. For a sensory being there must be a beginning; for him, “now” is the space between memory and expectation. This relates only to the physical form he call “ME”. He doesn’t realize his connection to the universe through spirit because his sense of time does not relate to the universe. He speak of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years, they are all contingent upon the earth’s orbit and the earths rotation. His
    concept of time isolates him from spirit and regulates the human experience on earth.

    The energy field that makes up space cannot be understood with a fixed concept of time, for it was created before time. Time must be understood separately from space; they are not the same. For the most part they are not related. The human being did
    not create space, the human being simply tried to name the components parts based on his limited sensory observations. What we believe we know about space is based on a conditioned set of observations founded in the idea that we are somehow the center of the universe. Time is a different thing, time is made up of ideas and concepts that do not apply to your universal self. The spirit of who you are is not bound by this physical world, it is lost in time.

    • February 02, 2015 at 5:17 am, Steve Daut said:

      Actually, now is always simply now, but because of the flow of experience and the time it take for us to experience and process the information from our senses, none of us actually experience the now we think is happening “out there”.

      • February 02, 2015 at 3:03 pm, Mit Jones said:

        There are a number of ideas and concepts which are difficult to discuss due to personal and varying definitions. “Now” is one of those concepts. The title to the article refers to “Nowness” which I believes is a personal feeling of “Now”. Within this understanding “Now has a start a duration and end. Your concept of time being related to experience is the same in that they are both personal observations.

        The idea of “Now” I tried to express does not have a start a duration or and end and it is not a feeling associated with a person, place or thing. It is a sense of unassociated being and the effortless acceptance of what is.

  5. February 04, 2015 at 4:24 pm, Paul R Burkhart said:

    One way of looking at how we experience a continuous Now is
    to look at the how the universe manifests from the nondual. The activity of
    separating things out has the effect of making the separated things seem to be
    ‘over there’, away from the whole, away from singular. This is the genesis of

    When things are separated as a pattern of things, they can be grouped as an association. Patterns can have patterns within themselves that subtly change the overall pattern as it progresses away from its origin. An increment of change can be viewed as an ‘instant’. This is the genesis of time.

    Things, or Associations have space/time locations. A space/time location is a viewpoint. Nondual can focus ‘know’ to come from a viewpoint rather than the total know of the Nondual. This is Perception. This is Identification. This is the genesis of

    Life forms with advanced brains can be uniquely Identified with. Complex brains create patterns and associations in a way that mimics the actual manifestation of space and things. By assumption of the viewpoint of an advanced brain and focusing know to the perceptions and memory and predictions in a brain’s patterns, Nondual arrives at a very decentralized, time and space dependent viewpoint. A sort of resonance is accomplished by giving real manifestation with one hand and perceiving via brain patterns that mimic with the other hand. This feedback or resonance, gives us the sense of moving through patterns in ‘present time’. Without this resonance,
    one could perceive infinite past time tracks and future time tracks as a whole
    of related patterns. The resonance is needed to focus on a particular point on
    the pattern and to gently shift location with each wave of the resonance.
    In this way we surf the wave of Now.

    Time is a sequence of viewpoints across a pattern.

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