Sep 2011

When Time Stands Still

This week, I boldly ventured out of the house, knowing I won’t return until after dark, without a scarf and wearing a mini-skirt with, wait for it, NO LEGGINGS. You might chuckle to yourself, thinking that now I look just like all the tourists who visit San Francisco in the summer only to keep the sweatshirt business flourishing in Fisherman’s Wharf. But I will have the last laugh, as the sun sets and I walk home without a single goosebump: San Francisco’s secret September summer is finally here.

As you can probably tell, I feel a certain pride in my fledgling understanding of San Francisco’s seasons. Dressing for the weather is an art in this city, and I’m convinced that the eclectic fashion of our native hipsters is influenced in large part by the extreme fluctuations in temperature in the different neighborhoods of the city and at different times of the day.

Just as my brain has finally sorted out the regularities in our highly irregular climate, I must admit that I have become a bit of a San Francisco cliche. I no longer fear simultaneously donning two different patterns. I prefer to walk or ride a bike than to drive. I’m really picky when it comes to coffee. I get a box of vegetables delivered from a local farm every week. I do what I love, relying on the kindness of strangers to pay me for doing it. I have an entire trunk dedicated to my scarf collection. When I drive, I drive a smart car so that I can park in between meters. I run a lot. I blog. I tweet. And I listen to NPR.

And so it was that I found myself moved to tears (while driving my smart car to a random gig) by Maurice Sendak on Fresh Air. He has just lost two dear friends, one a few months ago, and another just the other day, and he talked about how he doesn’t fear death itself, but he does fear isolation. He misses his friends and all the other loved ones that he’s lost. So he wrote another book, to help him negotiate these feelings and to explore them further.

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Bumble-ardy, the latest from author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, is dark and deeply imaginative, much like his classic works Where the Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. Bumble-ardy is an orphaned pig, who has reached the age of 9 without ever having a birthday party. He tells his Aunt Adeline that he would like to have a party for his ninth birthday, so Aunt Adeline plans a quiet birthday dinner for two. But Bumble-ardy instead decides to throw a large costume party for himself after his aunt leaves for work — and mayhem ensues. When his aunt returns she says, "Okay smarty, you've had your party but never again." Bumble-ardy replies, "I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10."



That last line has rattled around my mind all week: a simple rhyme that can be interpreted in so many ways, including as a strong desire to elongate the present moment into eternity and stop the unrelenting march of Time. I have long been fascinated by (and fearful of) the passage of time and the way that our minds track it. Our internal chronometer works in a myriad of ways, each tuned to a different time scale, from milliseconds to years. And just as memory is not an accurate record of the past, our sense of time is distorted by our goals, emotions, past experiences and current environment.

Even if we understand objectively that our memories are reconstructed versions of our experiences, it’s still difficult to reconcile the fact that our experiencing selves are very different from our remembering selves (see Kahneman’s brilliant TED talk here). That separation, however, is obvious to
David Eagleman, a 39-year old neuroscientist in Texas, who launched his human subjects off of a 50-meter high platform to test the notion that time slows down when we fear for our lives (a great New Yorker profile of him can be found here).

As expected, the disheveled subjects reported that their fall seemed to last a long time, and estimated that their own fall was 36% longer than the falls of the other subjects. A portable ‘perceptual chronometer’ was strapped onto the wrists of the subjects, to test whether subjects’ experiencing selves have better temporal resolution during the fall, when they report having experienced the slowing of time. A supersense should have its usefulness, after all, and the military, who funded part of this work, would benefit from harnessing such a skill. Alas, Eagleman and his colleagues found no evidence that our experiencing selves actually perceive time differently during frightening events. It all comes down to how and what we remember.

Happily, however, this finding points Bumble-ardy towards a way to accomplish his desire to stop Time. While we can’t manipulate the passage of time outside of our minds, our memory and imagination are the tools we need to leap forward, jump back and, most importantly, do-over what Time has taken away from us. Crafting rich, varied, and meaningful experiences fills our memory repositories with branches and footholds that trigger and support our reconstruction of Time gone by.

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Remembering in Manhattan

This week, I’m in Manhattan preparing for a marathon concert as my way of supporting people who were affected by the attacks on 9/11. I’ve started this blog-post numerous times, and have abandoned it because I, personally, did not lose anyone that I loved. It seems disingenuous to touch on the event as an outsider, when so many people experienced loss firsthand. And yet, the legacy of 9/11 is not loss, but connection.

When we were shooting
the episode of Miracle Detectives that deals with the story of 9/11, I came across this statement by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center:

'The World Trade Center should,' Yamasaki said, 'because of its importance, become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness.'


I’m not the first to point out how eerie it is that his vision has become reality as a result of unimaginable horror. My scientific career has been built on the study of autobiographical memory: how we remember our past and how our memories of our experiences shape our identity, our imagination, our decisions and ultimately, our future. But even if I had chosen a different topic, I suspect that I would still have been struck by the central place that remembering occupies in the landscape of the aftermath of the terror attacks.

We interviewed many people while we were preparing for and shooting the episode; survivors, first-responders, grieving family members, health-care practitioners treating victims and their families, writers and artists. Time and time again, I was struck by how important it was to the first responders and survivors in particular, to tell their stories. Even now, on Twitter, the vast majority of the conversation is dominated by reminiscences. Faced with random acts of violence, our notion that life is fair and just was turned on its head. As we try to make sense of what happened, we rearrange our worldview to accommodate this new information.

Faced with evidence that humans can cause such destruction, we swing the pendulum in the opposite direction: we become selfless, generous, kind and creative. In a city notorious for its ruthlessness, the citizens of New York, in particular, outdid one another with random acts of kindness and sacrifice. All over the city, the stories are being told, in pictures, in words and in acts. We are reshaping our memories and creating new ones with the same objective: to connect with those who were lost and with those who remain. Our
experiencing selves panicked, despaired, fought but our remembering selves have the power to console, create and rebuild.

There are countless events today to choose from, but I chose to participate in Music After because my dear friend Danny Felsenfeld, a Brooklyn-based composer, along with his friend Eleonor Sandresky, are emphasizing the creative output triggered by 9/11. Losing so many different people in one day is a blow to the community. And yet, the legacy of 9/11 includes a refocusing on the importance and power of communities and connections between people. This concert, free to anyone who wants to come and listen, is one example.
Meetup, a site that was created by New Yorkers in response to 9/11, and now has 9 million monthly visitors in 45,000 cities, is another. My heart goes out to all those who experienced loss first-hand a decade ago, and my performance today is my humble gift to this great city. May it never sleep.

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