I can be:
All at the same time! So how do I do that in fiction without driving my reader batty? Some writers clearly don’t care how their readers feel. Joyce’s Ulysses is a great example of an author trying to deal with this multi-layered understanding of time without much concern for readability (just my humble opinion).
In the most recent issue of the New Yorker there’s a great article on David Eagleman by Burkhard Bilger, “The Possibilian.” Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, although it’s clear that he’s a man who covers a lot of ground (including fiction). He’s most interested in the question of how the human brain understands time. I highly recommend reading this article. It produced a number of mind-boggling questions for me. If for some reason you can’t access it, let me know as I’ve copied the full text.
The part that really struck me was about how our perception of the world, and thus time, is delayed. In this paragraph Eagleman talks about how that delayed understanding is directly related to language:
“If someone says, ‘The mouse on the desk is broken,’ your mind calls forth a different image than if you hear, ‘The mouse on the desk is eating cheese.’ Your brain registers the word ‘mouse,’ waits for its context, and only then goes back to visualize it. But language leaves time for second thoughts. The flash-lag effect seems instantaneous. It’s as if the word ‘mouse’ were changed to ‘track pad’ before you even heard it.”
“[The brain] gathers up all the evidence of our senses, and only then reveals it to us. It’s a deeply counterintuitive idea in some ways. Touch your finger to an ember or prick it on a needle and the pain is immediate. You feel it now—not in half a second. But perception and reality are often a little out of register, as the saccade experiment showed. If all our senses are slightly delayed, we have no context by which to measure a given lag. Reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully censored before it reaches us.”
Our brains seem to operate so quickly that this delay in understanding feels insignificant. But in written work, whether consciously, or unconsciously, we are manipulating this delay in understanding, in the “reality” of the work and the passage of narrative time. We can interrupt time for pages, chapters, an entire novel. (Isn’t this how most jokes are constructed? By establishing expectations, allowing the listener’s/reader’s brain to come up with a logical progression, and then in the end throwing out a zinger that re-casts those expectations?)
Another part of the article got me thinking about the relationship between description and action in story:
“One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, he explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. ‘This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,’ Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.”
I feel like I’m constantly struggling in my work with the relationship between slowed-down, super-detailed, extra-rich sections, and the naturally quick pace of dialog. Is it because dialog uses a familiar format of back and forth quotations that makes it feel so quick? And the build-up of detail in descriptive passages that can make them feel so slow?
And what about this layering of thought and memory within time? At one point in the article, after conducting some testing Eagleman says “It suggests that time and memory are so tightly intertwined that they may be impossible to tease apart.” It’s clear that our memory is fallible, but this idea that our brain is creating our reality for us after the fact indicates that every moment of our reality is a memory, every moment of our reality is constructed.
Like I said - mind boggling.
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