I find it oddly satisfying that this evening many people will be celebrating something far older than Christianity. I'm talking about Halloween of course which, despite a determined hijacking by the greeting card industry and modern association with horror movies, is still basically the modern interpretation of the Celtic festival of Samhain which was being celebrated before Jesus was even a twinkle in the Holy Ghost's eye.
It's surprising that a relatively small scale meme as Samhain has survived the two thousand year onslaught of such a powerful meme-complex as Christianity, which is fundamentally opposed to it. The word Halloween itself is a Christian invention. In an attempt to stamp out the popular pagan celebration, Pope Gregory III moved All Saint's Day (and therefore obviously the previous day, All Hallow's Eve) from mid-May to the beginning of November. All he ended up doing was giving it a more catchy name that's easier to spell.
So what is it about Halloween that's so enduring and that will probably outlast modern monotheism, despite the way the latter has shaped the modern world? I suppose it's partly because the Jack O'Lantern character looks and sounds a lot more fun than Jesus; more of a Trickster than a Preacherman and they're always more engaging. But mainly because it taps into something more basic; Samhain is a celebration of the start of the dark half of the year, and the cycle of the seasons is something that's been around a lot longer than any of us; in fact it shaped our species.
This is why some memes never die; they've made themselves part of us so can't be supplanted.
For instance, I find it fascinating that Ancient Egyptian imagery has survived so long. From the very beginning, Egypt was subject to constant invasion; it was after all a prime bit of African real estate with inbuilt desert irrigation. Yet instead of the invaders burning the idols and forcing their own belief system on the country they themselves ended up being mentally colonised by Isis, Osiris et al. Even when powerful empires such as the Greeks and then later the Romans added Egypt to their territories they found themselves seduced by the animal-heads.
Early Christian imagery in Egypt can be fascinating, showing as it does Jesus on the cross accompanied by Horus and Anubis; some have claimed that the only reason the Virgin Mary was so bigged-up in the first place was to win over the hordes of Isis worshipers (compare depictions of Madonna and Child with the Egyptian imagery of Isis nursing Horus).
Even today in modern Egypt, industrial and Islamic as it is, the imagery and iconography of pharaonic times are everywhere. Ramses II, who ruled Egypt well over three thousand years ago, is still revered and gives his name to railway stations and squares.
What's not clear is why this imagery is so powerful. What part of our minds does it resonate with, what does it tap into, and how did it shape us?
I've no idea, but you can't keep a good meme down.
I find it oddly satisfying that this evening many people will be celebrating something far older than Christianity. I'm talking about Halloween of course which, despite a determined hijacking by the greeting card industry and modern association with horror movies, is still basically the modern interpretation of the Celtic festival of Samhain which was being celebrated before Jesus was even a twinkle in the Holy Ghost's eye.
I'm going to go on about The Question Machine (QM) again today. I've been theorising about and blaming it for any number of things over the past couple of months. For anyone reading this for the first time, the QM is my way of describing the way the brain builds up a picture of the world around it, starting from first principles (is that a straight line? yes) and after twenty million questions in a short space of time arriving at a correct description of what's being presented to it.
Previously I've been interested in what happens when the QM's sense of discrimination is turned down or off (resulting in dreams or hallucinations) but here I'm going to poke it with a stick whilst it's still on full power.
There is a phenomenon I've noticed myself but which I've never seen specifically described (and why should it, it only occurs in specialised circumstances). I used to hitch-hike around the country a lot when I was younger, principally to go and see bands play outside London. I'm sure I could write a whole series of blog entries about that by itself, but on this occasion that's not why I'm here. Whilst hitching I noticed a visual illusion which I called Hitcher's Lag. Standing by the side of the road with your thumb out you get used to seeing objects rushing towards you, although unless you're very unlucky none actually hit you. But unless you're very lucky, you're going to be there for a while.
I noticed that if, after a prolonged bout of roadside hoping I turned around and stared at a stationary object it appeared to be receding from me. It was as if the part of the QM that detected things moving towards me had got tired and was taking things as read, whereas the part detecting things moving away from me was getting bored and was eager to go to work - so the moment it saw something not moving towards me it interpreted it as moving away.
So it seems that the QM isn't as reliable as it might be and can be fooled into giving the wrong answers even when it's fully switched on.
By the time you've read this far, the mandala at the top of the page (Kitaoka & Ashida's peripheral drift rotating snake illusion) has probably been bugging you for a while. It's fine when you're looking straight at it, but the moment you look at the text of the blog entry you become aware that it's started moving. You look back, hoping to catch it at it, but the moment you pay attention, it's motionless again.
You begin to realise that your internal picture of the universe around you isn't as complete as you might like to think. The QM is very good of telling you exactly what's in front of your nose, but it takes a lot of the rest as read and reassures you that you know what's off to the side when in fact human peripheral vision is very bad. Try holding a playing card out at arm's length to your right whilst looking forward. Move your arm forwards so as to slowly bring the card into your field of view - you'll be surprised how long it is before you can tell it's the Ace of Spades.
So even though we think we're fully aware of our environment, a lot of this awareness is presumed knowledge and false confidence based on very shaky (or even absent) data. It doesn't feel like it's imperfect or missing as we're programmed to trust this knowledge.
Of course it's not always trustworthy. In the illusion above the QMs poor resolution at the peripheries misinterprets the repeating levels of light, shade and tone as movement, even though we can't say exactly what it is that's moving. If we concentrate on them with the corner of the eye (tricky I'll grant you) there's no sense of any of the actual elements of the circles themselves moving, just that somewhere "over there" movement is involved. Because of such acts of flawed analysis, we can say that the world each of us lives in is no more than a series of best guesses given the data available - and it's very easy for that data to be wrong.
Nothing is necessarily as it seems.
I started writing when I was a kid. Aside from short pieces of creative writing, my childhood magna opera were comics drawn in biro. The first was about a giant called Bigfoot who was "twenty five miles high" and arrived on Earth and proceded to get into a rage.
I'm not quite sure how I managed to sustain this wafer thin premise for as long as I did; perhaps by being derivative. In the Bigfoot in Space sequence he did meet Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, K9 and the crew of the Liberator...
I moved on to a series of comics about the exploration of the Solar System starring Captain Dawswell. For some reason this one astronaut was involved in the first mission to every single planet. Apart from Pluto, which wasn't a planet at all (was I a bit ahead of my time there?) but which turned out to be a massive space station built by dolphins.
Furthermore, flying in the face of the best evidence of the time, every single planet in the Solar System seemed to harbour some kind of life. From the tiny armoured bugs of Mercury to the "Greenies" on Venus who were in fact an alternate version of the human race created by interfering aliens transplanting a group of Australopithecine ape men from Africa to Venus three million years ago. They developed faster than their cousins on Earth; their industrialisation inducing irreversible climate change and a runaway greenhouse effect so that by the present day they were all living in underground bunkers.
There was a complex hive-based civilisation of insects on Mars. Balloon creatures roamed the atmosphere of Jupiter whilst living jet-planes with three sexes did likewise on Saturn. I think I'd started to run out of steam at this point, as both Uranus and Neptune were inhabited by the same species; telepaths with enormous transmitter dishes on their heads.
For some reason the rest of the galaxy appeared to be inhabited by giants (this explained where Bigfoot came from). Oh and life itself was an infectious disease that our galaxy was discovered to be suffering from.
The first comic in the sequence and therefore Captain Dawswell's first mission was called "2009: The Mission to Mars".
At the time I remember being deliberately conservative with the date. Even though it was still the seventies I could tell that Arthur C Clarke's vision of an extensive Moon Base and a Jupiter Mission by 2001 was a bit far fetched. However, I had no idea just how far fetched and would have been disappointed to learn that in the alleged year of Dawswell's first mission NASA would still be all of a dither as to how they planned to ferry people up to the space station once the space shuttle was retired in 2010.
My general space disappointment has been documented in another blog entry; I think it's worth expressing again here. Come on Obama, get your finger out. Once you've sorted out world peace how about giving the space program a kick up the proverbial?
After all, no other president has ever starred in in own comic before. Why not make it an exciting comic?
I don't have any deep philosophical topic that's been bothering me for ages to discuss today. This is partly because I am so tired at the moment. After a long week at work - and given the amount that I complain about time passing too quickly I should be grateful that it was so long - I've been given an extra long weekend to recover.
It's not that extra long really; just one hour which represents a mere 2.083 percent extra. Still it's not to be sniffed at, although as a time rebate it'll be short lived as I've got to give it back next spring. More of a loan, really.
Yes, it's the end of Daylight Saving Time. You know, the one where the clocks go back which in theory gives us an "extra hour in bed" but which in practice always manages to slip by unnoticed as for some reason I always end up going to bed at least an hour later than normal on the evening before. Unlike the one where the clocks go forward when I end up being late for work for a week.
It was even worse in the days when I used to spend all of Saturday night at the Slimelight. In the spring due to the clocks going forward the club would close on time at 7.30am, meaning that I'd spent an hour less there, whereas in the autumn when the clocks went back it would remain open for the normal time span and therefore close at 6.30am, necessitating a long wait for the first tube... It's to be expected of course - the odds are always stacked in favour of the house.
There's a phrase to remember these seasonal clock movements, isn't there? Something along the lines of "Spring Onions Fall Over".
It's also traditional at this time of year for someone or other to start making a noise about how we should stay on British Summer Time and then go forward another hour the following spring. That doesn't make any sense to me. As someone who lives pretty much as near as dammit on the Greenwich Meridian (longitude -0.165) it seems logical to me that the sun should be overhead at mid-day... however that's where all the trouble started and why we had to invent time zones in the first place.
Before the invention of time zones we used solar time, which meant that when the sun was overhead it was noon. This meant that 12 midday in London was only 11.44am in Plymouth. Luckily, back then there was no TV or radio, so this was less confusing that at first it might appear, and even if you had a very fast horse you'd be hard put to find a way to take advantage of this discrepancy.
Then they invented railways and before long it started getting a bit confusing for people travelling between Plymouth and London what with all the resetting of watches, so by 1848 all of the train companies adopted Greenwich Mean Time. However, it wasn't until 1880 that it was officially adopted across the country. Just in the nick of time; on the other side of the Atlantic, Edison was busy inventing radio.
So we've got it sorted.
"Is this the GMT or is this the UTC, I thought it was the BST or just another time zone..."
It's going to get confusing again when we colonise Mars.
What makes getting up in the morning so difficult sometimes? I've just spent ten minutes wrestling with my volition, although in this case it's been time well spent as I was deliberately analysing what it was that made me want to stay in bed.
Apparently it's not physical tiredness (and if I was writing a Wikipedia article I'd have to "cite" something here). All the physical body needs to recharge its batteries is around half an hour's lying down and then it's good to go. No, it's the brain. It's always the brain.
Lying there analysing why I didn't want to get up I noticed there was a mental glow in the back brain and a general low level endorphine buzz throughout the body. I was enjoying it enough to be physically conscious of the Happy Mechanism. Usually the Happy Mechanism kicks in when we're doing something that we oughta, so what was it about lying there in bed and possibly falling asleep again that was biologically better for me than getting up, writing this, getting ready, eating breakfast, going to work and earning a crust? Would Thugg the Caveman have felt the same, preferring to stay wrapped up under his badly-skinned bear pelt than going out after yet more of those sabre-toothed tigers?
Sleep is obviously very important. It's a shame that we don't really understand what it's for. A Thugg-based story will be no help in this instance as sleep is far older than mankind. All mammals and birds sleep (although I can't see how whales and dolphins manage to get much). The dinosaurs probably slept.
I wouldn't be surprised to discover that if deprived of sleep for long enough you'd drop dead.
Like many biological processes we have to ask What was it originally for? and What does it do now? I have no idea - this is a topic for which a major amount of research would be required and I only realised I'd be writing this whilst engaged in the activity described at the beginning of this piece. In this epoch, human sleep must be something to do with growth and development, which would explain why children need more sleep than adults.
However, despite the inscrutibility of sleep's purpose, the effects of being deprived of it may well give us a meaty clue as to the purpose of this mysterious activity without which, lets face it, we'd have so much more time.
Generally, when deprived of sleep you become increasingly less and less efficient at cognitive activity. You start to make mistakes and get irritable. You forget what you're doing and become clumsy. But why? Something important is missing (and I don't mean sleep, that would be a circular argument).
Then, after a couple of days without shuteye, it happens. You start hallucinating.
I'm writing from experience here; the same occasion when after 48+ hours of sleeplessness I found myself experiencing the spectacularly useless supernatural power of Vehicle Pillar Prediction. As we have discussed before, hallucinations, like dreams, are caused by The Question Machine (QM), the mechanism by which we make sense of the universe around us, running at a very low threshold with subsequently very bad results, for example
Q: What are those moving shapes?
A: An endless row of 1 foot high old ladies crossing the road.
So taking the QM offline for maintenance is essential - and if we refuse to go to sleep the brain does it anyway. Furthermore it would seem that we don't turn the QM down to make sure that we dream, but more that dreams are an unavoidable side effect of having the QM idling or switched off.
Why do we need it switched off? I assume to have new recognition patterns installed. Every day we experience new things and these will have to be programmed into the game of Twenty Million Questions we play whenever we look at something, whenever we experience something. If they weren't we'd never move forward in our lives and would become obsolete.
Essentially we go offline every night in order for our BrainOS to receive critical software updates.
Copernicus could have got in a lot of trouble when he suggested that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Somehow he managed to avoid getting embroiled in controversy (perhaps by dedicating his book to the Pope - what a creep) and it was poor old Galileo that took the heat the following century and was the focus of the church's wrath and ended up spending the last ten years of his life under house arrest like a seventeenth century Salman Rushdie.
The church's reaction to the geocentric scientific beliefs of the day being challenged seems a bit over the top. What had it got to do with them anyway? It seems that they were getting ideas above their station, interfering in scientific circles, but of course back then you couldn't get a higher station than the church, and what's more they had the might to back it up.
But, putting the church poking their oar in aside for the moment, you can understand why the old Ptolemaic system, whereby the Earth is immobile and sits at the centre of everything, seemed to make sense. It stood to reason. There it is, beneath our feet, solid as a rock, immobile. Anyone who trips over and falls down a flight of stone stairs has no doubt about that.
And everything else - all those lights in the sky? They're quite clearly rushing around up there and are all obviously turning about the Earth. And it follows from this that as masters of Earth, mankind is obviously the most important thing in the universe. Don't put me down!
Now we realise that this was all wrong and that far from being the centre of everything, Earth is insignificant, an invisible dot circling an invisible dot, infinitely small. How could we have been so arrogant to think that we lay at the centre of everything? Silly old people.
We're so much more enlightened now, aren't we? Here in the present, at the centre of time.
Grandfather assassination theory aside, it's generally held these days that now is the only time there is and that time travel is impossible. It stands to reason. Here we are, in the eternal present moving forward one day at a time whilst the past is dead, gone and set in stone, the future unknowable.
I can't help thinking that this point of view is just as human chauvinistic as the old geocentric model of the universe. We've conceded the point that we're no longer at the centre of space, but still consider ourselves to be at the centre of time. Perhaps we need to be toppled from this position as well? Why should now be at the centre of time? Just because we don't appear to be able to move freely about in time doesn't prove a thing; Copernicus and Galileo didn't have to possess spacecraft to be right about their theories, why should we have to build a time machine?
Of course we need a theory to go with this assertion. Will the temporal Copernicus please stand up?
Quite why anyone would actually want to go back in time and shoot their own grandfather is beyond me. It's said so glibly and yet I'm forced to think that even if I possessed a time machine and a desire for grandpatricide, I would have absolutely no idea how to go about procuring a gun.
Nevertheless this rather bloodthirsty scenario is often cited as a clinching proof of the impossibility of time travel. I'm not so sure. I feel sure it could be solved given the application of Many Worlds Theory (MWT). Broadly put, Many Worlds Theory states that everything that can happen, did happen. That is not to say that the universe is watching and decides to split in two every time you toss a coin; it's more that at a very basic quantum level everything happens. We can work upwards from that. This means that Schrödinger's famous cat is alive in one universe and dead in another - no spooky co-existence in both states until observed is necessary.
Mind you, I wouldn't be surprised if the sort of people who go around locking a cat in a box with a vial of prussic acid aren't the same sort of sickos who might indeed entertain thoughts of popping a cap in grandpa's ass just for the hell of it.
Anyway, all that happens under MWT is that they go back and terminate grandpa only to return to their own time and discover that they're in a universe in which grandpa was killed and subsequently their branch of the family doesn't exist. This doesn't mean that they've changed history; their original world of departure still exists and some might say it's now a far better place for the absence of a gun toting time travelling maniac.
MWT also has some other interesting side effects. Have you ever wondered why you're not dead yet? Seriously, loads of other people have died, why not you? Or me?
Maybe we already have in some of the many worlds; the thing is that in those worlds there's no spark of consciousness for us to inhabit so we don't notice them. We only remain aware of those worlds where we carry on existing. In theory this means that every one of us is going to live to a ripe old age where we consider how lucky we are to have dodged all those bullets.
However, just because we've ended up in a Very Old People's Home in one world there's no reason whatsoever that any of our contemporaries will end up in that same world. In many of the other worlds people will have seen us die but from our point of view we're fine - this is almost the Anthropic Principle applied on a personal level. I'm all right Jack, and so are you, but not necessarily in the same universe.
I do hope the Very Old People's Home isn't filled with octogenarians rambling on about how they narrowly escaped death back in their twenties when a mysterious stranger appeared in their bedroom and tried to shoot them.
As a child I discovered that the only ways to beat the Evil V were either to fiddle with the curtains until they were entirely shut or to simply open them. Sometimes this was more difficult than it sounds.
I well remember one occasion - I was still in a bunk bed so must have been pre-eight - when I awoke early in the morning and opened my eyes to see the Evil V hanging there looking at me. I had to get out of bed, go over to the window and open the curtains. I scrambled down to the foot of the bed and reached for the curtains only to awake to find myself still lying motionless back in the bed, eyes barely open; but open enough to still see the Evil V hovering, smirking.
This went on for a while. I would seemingly get up and reach for the curtain only to discover that I hadn't moved; furthermore that I couldn't move. Once I actually managed to open the curtains, although the fact that I did so by playing a fanfare on a trumpet was a bit of a giveaway that it was merely another dream from which I inevitably surfaced to the horror of cataleptic wakefulness in a room presided over by the Evil V.
Obviously I snapped out of it eventually (otherwise I'd still be there in the back bedroom of 245 Galliard Road), but this paralysis upon awakening is something that I've experienced intermittently ever since.
It turns out it's not that uncommon, and is fairly easy to explain. When we dream we're usually engaged in all manner of activities - for instance as I mentioned a few entries ago, riding a galloping horse along Marine Parade - and it would be inconvenient if not downright dangerous if we were to act them all out. So, for the duration of the dream, the brain switches off the body so as to be allowed to dream in peace. Sometimes the switch gets stuck in the off position and we begin to wake up only to discover that we can't physically move.
This paralysis would be enough to put the shits up anyone and has been associated with the presence of supernatural beings in folklore. The spookiness is not helped by the fact that often in this state the Question Machine is still running at a low threshold meaning that the sensory information we receive from the real world is still being interpreted in a dreamlike manner. Is that a dressing gown on the back of the door? No, it's the Grim Reaper.
In my mid-to-late-teens I started reading about Out-Of-Body-Experiences and other related Weird Shit and so began to interpret sleep paralysis in these terms. Now I was no longer afraid when I woke in this state, I saw it as an opportunity to see if I could leave the body whilst still alive, to lend out the ghost as it were. Sometimes it appeared to work, but on most of those occasions there was enough vagueness about the experience to allow the sceptical side of myself to interpret it as Only A Dream.
Nowadays, thinking of it again in purely materialistic terms, I can see how it might work. The sense of oneself residing "behind the eyes" is purely arbitrary and probably related to our visually oriented culture. I would be interested to hear where blind people imagine they "are".
Hardcore materialists maintain that our awareness is an illusion and there is no seat of consciousness (standing room only in the Cartesian Theatre!); nevertheless it is a very convincing illusion. It may not follow that I Think Therefore I Am but at least they have to conceded that I Think Therefore I Think I Am. And if it is an illusion, then there's no reason the parameters of that illusion can't be changed. Given enough information about our environment surely we can imagine our "selves" located anywhere in it - behind our eyes, in the palm of our right hand or even ten foot above our own heads.
So in this half-dreaming state of paralysis it's not unreasonable that we might be able to start shifting the imaginary seat of consciousness. After all if we're sending signals to move the arm and it's refusing to do so, the low-threshold Question Machine might interpret the situation as: Did I manage to move my arm? Yes. Is my arm still lying where it was? Yes. Therefore I must have moved my arm out of my arm.
Once the idea of moving without moving has taken hold it becomes easier to slip out of the body all together. We're still lying there - and even though I am approaching this from a sceptical point of view I am still sure that there are ways we can sense our environment that we as yet know nothing about - but have moved the focus of "ourselves" away from the physical location of the body. It is odd the way that we still seem to have a phantom body in this situation, but this may just be the mental representation of the body used in dreams, the unhooking of which from the real body causes the catalepsy in the first place.
The further away from the body we move, the more dreamlike the surroundings become - information about the environment is becoming sketchy as we move away from our sensory organs and so the low-threshold Question Machine is having to make more and more of it up. Just as Alice discovered when she slipped through the looking glass, the parts she couldn't see from our side of the mirror were very different from their real-world counterparts.
By the time we're in the next room - if we're lucky by having passed through the wall - we're effectively dreaming again. The locus of self has moved so far away from any reliable information available that it's looking at red noise again. Most of us just fall asleep again at this point - once out of the body it's so tempting to fly around all over the place (I often head straight for outer space) that most of us do, and thereby lose any illusion of maintaining the waking consciousness.
There are a couple of aspects of this phenomenon I still can't explain. Firstly, why is the sense of touch of the phantom body so realistic? Far more so than the tactile sense in ordinary dreams.
And secondly, one Sunday morning in North London how did I manage to visit my sister whilst she was staying at a friend's house in Ramsgate?
We've already seen that if you point a dreaming brain at a wall of red noise (namely the mind static sensory input of someone sleeping) it plays a game of twenty million questions which, thanks to a lowered sense of discrimination, results in a reasonably coherent narrative.
Even though in some ways this means that dreams are being made up as they go along, this doesn't mean that they are random and meaningless. After all, it could be claimed that life itself is being made up as it goes along, but it's only the most hardened atheist nihilists that would claim that it too is meaningless (although we shall learn more of this point of view on another occasion).
No, all this means is that the mechanism whereby we make sense of the world is allowed free reign. Instead of cross-examining reality and building up a fairly high definition, coherent picture which bears a close resemblance to whatever is actually out there (whatever "actually" really means) it's effectively interrogating the void and making up its own answers. Unlike the waking sensorium which is a model of the universe, the dreaming sensorium is a model of the hopes and fears of the human mind, as well as being a model of the expectations the individual has of the universe.
No wonder it can be so weird.
The odd thing I find is that it can be consistent from dream to dream, even years apart. There are places I find myself revisiting which have no existence in reality but which nevertheless I've dreamed about many times before. Sometimes they have a supposed identity as part of a past scenario (this is supposed to be part of my childhood in Edmonton, that part of East Finchley), but they rarely if ever bear any real resemblance to the long-gone reality itself.
There are a couple of flats that make regular appearances in my dreams; you could almost say they're my pieds-à-rêve. One's on the roof of another building and has a ceiling made mostly of glass. It's kind of like a roof-top conservatory. You can go out onto the roof itself - like a patio. It's in the centre of a large city, possibly London or New York.
The other is a flat underground; usually beneath the garden of the house in Muswell Hill I lived in during the early eighties. It's accessible via a small spiral staircase near the back door of the house and also has a couple of windows at the end of the garden where the ground falls away (it doesn't fall away in reality). This flat smells of mould but nonetheless there's something exciting about it, a sense of the rediscovery of something long-hidden.
It's not just imaginary locations that seem to have a consistent existence from dream to dream; sometimes real places get a makeover from Morpheus. Brighton in particular seems to have a dream character all it's own. It's far bigger for a start; arriving in on the freeway you come over the crest of a hill and see the sprawl of the city below, complete with skyscrapers clustered around the seafront. The freeway passes through a tunnel which brings you out in the city centre itself. There's a bazaar in Kemp Town and a monorail heading out towards Rottingdean.
There's a grid of wide Georgian streets stretching back from the seafront and the beach itself is much wider. Oddest of all there are some uninhabited islands made mostly of bare black granite about half a mile out to sea. The water's always warm, so it's often fun to swim out to these.
It can be disappointing to wake up and find this place doesn't exist. Perhaps it will one day...
Some mornings it seems as if my body will do almost anything to remain asleep. Even if I seem to have been wake for a while, as soon as the alarm goes off I contrive to have somehow been asleep again and in the middle of an interesting dream (this morning I was riding a galloping horse along Marine Parade). They say that we need eight hours sleep; for me that's just not enough. Ten maybe. If I'm ever given the opportunity we'll see. Perhaps I should go to bed at 8pm one night and see what happens.
Of course it was very different when I was a child. Back then I couldn't wait to get up (although I can be forgiven for this bearing in mind how early I had to go to bed). There was none of this lying around making false promises to myself - in a minute, honestly - as soon as I was awake that was it. I was pleased to be free of sleep's clutches.
Given the recurring nightmares I had, some of which I described in an earlier blog entry, that's no real surprise. Wakefulness was a far safer place. The producers of my dreams had seen how successfully the Dobods had scared the pants off me and, like the producers of sixties Doctor Who trying to emulate the success of the Daleks, tried to come up with more monsters that would wake me in terror.
And just like the producers of sixties Doctor Who they had limited success. After the Dobods, the main villains were called the Gagas. An uninspired name, but then again what do you expect; I was only two or three. They looked more interesting than they sounded. Picture the side of an end-of terrace tenement block - a huge rectangular expanse of windowless brick tapering off at the top to a many flued chimney. Now picture this shape made instead of a soft, grey organic looking material, flexible, rounded at the edges. A Gaga. They towered over me and seemed to come in pairs. I can't remember what else they did, nor what made them so frightening, although there's a sense that I was afraid they'd fall over and crush me.
The only other monsters that I can recall wandering the childhood dreamscape in any great numbers were the Wyves. Unlike the Gagas, the name was considerably more impressive than the creatures themselves. The Wyves seemed to consist of no more or less than the chinks of light seem underneath an ill fitting curtain; short horizontal slivers of radiance. I don't remember them doing anything, I just feared them.
But then again I do have an irrational fear of chinks of light showing through curtains, especially that wicked looking V that appears at the top where the two curtains meet. It's the V from the word evil, I tell you. Even now if staying in an unfamiliar room I always check the curtains before going to bed to make sure there are no Evil Vs lurking, to cast frightening shapes on the wall when cars drive past and to hang there terrifying me when it first starts getting light.
Being afraid of what might be lurking in the dark is good; it means your mind is still alive and imagination active. In retrospect I almost enjoy it.
At the time it is terrible, and that's the point.
I would have liked to write about earworms and the evolutionary significance of music this morning, but haven't had time to do enough research. There's a lot of it out there but it's difficult to find time to sort the wheat from the chaff from the far too complex.
So this morning I am beginning to write without any idea where it's going. I am determined not the break the flow; I have to write something in order to keep up my side of the bargain. Of course the other side of the bargain is mine as well; that's the problem with forcing yourself to do something. I realise that this is in danger of becoming a metablog entry; I must need one of these right now, I obviously need to break the first rule of daily blog every so often.
It's a shame that it hasn't quite yet become an addiction; even though I am still managing to force myself to write every day, it would still be easier not to (no matter how bad that would make me feel). I don't know how long you have to do something before it becomes a habit and then an addiction. I've kept this up for nearly two months now. Some might say that is reason enough to assume I've become addicted despite any protestations to the contrary. Well, maybe. But what happens on non-blogging days?
I'm supposed to be writing my novel. I have varying degrees of success there. I usually manage to do something; even if it's tweaking a sentence or going though a passage rewriting it to make it more convincing. But it's not as successful as writing this blog; I'm not getting 500 words done every other day. Some days I get 700 or even 1000; on others I'm lucky if I get 50. I suppose it could partly be because no-one sees the novel whereas (in theory) people are reading this and would notice if I didn't post at all, even if it's only something like today's aimless ramble.
So it can't be a true habit yet; if it was I'd be banging out the novel as fast as I bang out this.
But this novel, like some of its protagonists, is a contrary beast. Sometimes I'll be inspired and end up writing 1500 words on the same day as a writing a blog entry. I get the feeling the story is all in there somewhere I just need to uncover it. Sometimes it's buried deep and so the spadework is slow and tedious; at other times it's just below the surface and so all I need is a broom to brush away the sand; if the wind's in the right direction it almost writes itself. Sometimes I'm as surprised as I hope my future readers will be by the turn of events.
I'm sure now that if I didn't have a day job I'd be able to finish it very soon. Sadly I do have to go to work, so it all comes down to time.
My old adversary, Time. Who, if you are to believe one of my earlier blog entries, doesn't actually exist. So what's my real excuse?
What makes something funny? Why do we laugh?
There are many theories about what constitutes humour, about what makes comedy. That's not quite what I'm trying to understand. I want to know what it's for.
In general everything about us has a beneficial biological purpose (apart from the appendix which seems to exist merely to become inflamed, affording many of us our first experience of an operation in which general anaesthetic is used). Even our behaviour - some would say especially our behaviour - has evolved in response to a specific need, to give us the advantage over those not so blessed. So where's the advantage in finding things funny? I can't see it.
Perhaps I'm looking at this the wrong way. Using an analogy might help.
Why do we feel lust? Like feeling amused it's an irresistible emotion which can temporarily take over our mind so we can think of nothing else. Well that's an easy one. We feel lust in order to make us have sex. What's the biological purpose of sex? Why to reproduce, everyone knows that.
So we have an emotion which provokes an action which has a necessary biological effect. The emotion has to be so strong because we're thinking beings and might otherwise question why we have to do something so strange. It can't be a more basic compulsion like having to go for a pee because sometimes its impossible or inappropriate to just have sex. Like when you're having a meeting with your bank manager. (Do people still do that these days?)
Logically therefore we have an emotion, being amused, which makes us want to perform an action. I'm talking about laughter. We feel amused because we need to laugh. So why do we laugh? What's its basic purpose?
That's a more tricky one.
Luckily our old friend Wikipedia is at hand. Apparently laughter is linked with the activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain, which produces endorphins after a rewarding activity. Endorphins. They're what a particularly patronising doctor I had some twenty years ago called "happy juice". So we laugh in order to feel good.
That's no great revelation. Why do we need to feel good in humour-like situations?
Thugg the Caveman and his mates are out hunting sabre-toothed tigers. They're sure one went behind that rock over there, or at least that's what Drugg claims to have seen. So they sneak up, spears at the ready. Things are tense. Last time they tackled a tiger Thugg received that scar on his left buttock and Mugg was killed. Their fight or flight responses are ready for action, adrenal glands cocked, poised to flood adrenalin into their bloodstreams.
They round the rock and...
...it's a squirrel.
What are their bodies going to do with all this adrenalin? If they're not careful all that pent up tension is going to make them start fighting each other. Instead, Drugg laughs and they all join in. The tension is defused as their brains flood with endorphins, neutralising the fight-or-flight response. At the same time their sense of camaraderie is bolstered by the shared hilarity. Next time they'll be an even more efficient hunting force.
Of course there's a lot more to comedy than that. Just as lust has become decoupled from reproduction with myriad forms of fetishism providing it with a non-reproductive outlet (not to mention contraception), comedy no longer serves the sole purpose of stopping us all beating each other up.
Just like lust, it's taken on a life of its own. A night at a comedy club is therefore the equivalent of guilt-free safe sex.
Q: What do you get if you take the content of the previous two blog entries and extrapolate from there?
A: Something that sounds a bit like Weird Shit.
Sorry, that wasn't my intention. In the tradition of the good old thought experiment I'm only going to talk about what is or what might be and am not going to invoke any mysterious ineffable power. There'll be no "god did it" here - it's the philosophical equivalent of "because I say so" and we all remember how annoying that was when we were kids.
Yesterday I was trying to demonstrate how linear time might be an illusion. I realised later that in doing so I inadvertently implied that another sort of time existed - in saying "your previous present was in 2023, and you may shortly be departing for 1977" I was indicating that these three selves, 2023, 2009 and 1977, were being visited in sequence. A sequence implies time. A kind of meta-time. I didn't mean to; it's just that as beings that exist in what we think of as time it can be hard to express ourselves without referring to it.
However, the point that we don't have to experience our lives sequentially still stands.
Now think back to the entry previous to that, the one about living forever. I argued that even if we cracked the problem of our physical bodies running down (and there's no reason why we shouldn't) we'd we'd sooner or later run out of memory and start glitching like a 1990s Pentium. In order to keep going we'd have to start archiving the older stuff. Enough of this archiving and withing a few hundred years we'd effectively be a different person. And this didn't matter.
The two main conclusions here are that time isn't linear and that personality isn't constant.
This means that the non-linear being who changes personality every couple of centuries might well be experiencing reading an obscure blog in 2009 and moments later be climbing the north face of Olympus Mons on Mars in 2167 with a completely different set of memories.
But why stop there? If our Quantum Leaping consciousness can switch personalities without noticing - and why should it, every time it "arrives" it finds a fully functional mindset with matching memories - then there's no reason it should be confined to one person. You may be you at the computer reading this now, but a few seconds ago you could have been Pope Pius IX in 1877. Next up could be Gloria Gaynor in the middle of recording I Will Survive in 1978 followed by Thugg the Caveman in 20,349 BC sitting staring at the fire in his cave in that land that his descendants would one day call Wolverhampton.
Just as we are told that we are made up of atoms that very probably were once part of the bodies of Henry VIII or Quintus Ligarius, we've all probably at one point been them as well.
Hang on though. What did I mean by "we've all"? If this is true then there doesn't need to be more than one consciousness, leaping across the ages from person to person. We are all the same being.
Remember that next time you have a go at someone. At some point you're going to be on the receiving end of that venom.
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The beginning of another week, once more we continue marching inexorably forward towards the end."Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so."Douglas Adams
Or do we?
Well, obviously we do, or at least it feels like we do. But during my rambling investigations into the nature of consciousness I began to question the nature of time or at least the nature of our perception of it. Are we really moving forwards at an accelerating rate or is that just what it feels like?
The acceleration of time as we get older is obviously an illusion as I've discussed before, so might its steady passage in one direction also be imaginary? We need to think about how we actually experience time.
What is the present? I'd say the present corresponds to our short term memory; it's the moment in which our consciousness, our sense of being, exists. Looking at theories of the mechanism of consciousness, I'd say the present is probably several seconds long.
What is the past? From the context you can probably see where I'm going with this. For us, the past is our long-term memory. This is of variable length, consisting as it does of everything from the beginning of our lives to where the short-term memory starts.
I'm not going to define the future at this point; partly because from the point of view of the mind, it doesn't exist yet.
So consider yourself now. The spark of self burning brightly in the short-term memory of the present reinforced by the weight of the long term memory, the past. No knowledge of the future; as far as you're concerned you may be planning to have a shower in ten minutes, but there's no guarantee that you will. Smelly.
Consider yourself ten years ago. The spark of self burning brightly in the short-term memory of the present reinforced by the weight of the long term memory, the past. In other words exactly the same as now.
So what would happen if your mind inexplicably leaped from now to ten years ago? I don't think you'd notice. Assuming that memories are encoded inside the brain, in both temporal positions you have the solid memories of the past at your shoulder but no knowledge of the future. If you then leaped to next Tuesday, the effect would remain. Wherever your mind sits in your life it's facing forward, into the future. I don't think that the various presents that make up a lifespan have to occur sequentially at all.
OK, so you feel like it's 2009 and you're reading this near the beginning of October, but you would, wouldn't you? That's what the memories you have in the current present are telling you. But for all you know your previous present was in 2023, and you may shortly be departing for 1977. You'll return here of course - or perhaps you've already been here - as you have to visit every single present that make up your life.
Cosmological theory states that time is merely an aspect of space. Fine - just because our experience of it seems sequential and in one direction doesn't mean that it is. You can travel in both directions in space down the A27 after all, and if space and time are equivalent...
As The Prophets once said: "Linear time - what is this?"
Further reading:For more ruminations on the non-linear nature of consciousness and reality, see the entries:
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"Being born is not a crime, so why must it carry a sentence of death?"Who wants to live forever?
To be honest, I wouldn't mind. No really. Sometimes I think anyone who doesn't want to live forever quite clearly hasn't properly understood the concept of death. Perhaps this attitude of mine is being affected by my current reading matter; as any regular readers of this blog may have noticed I'm attempting to give my mind a workout by reading a lot of philosophical and scientific texts on the nature of consciousness, the nature of being. One thing that the Champions of Physicalism seem to delight in gleefully pointing out is that we are no more than the sum of our parts, that this is all there is and that we're all going to die. We're all going to stop. Sometimes this becomes horribly clear to me in the middle of the night and I go cold with terror.
Something must be done. It may be an illusion, but I'm quite attached to being sentient. I may not have seen attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion but I'm equally loathe to see some of my favourite experiences lost forever like sweat in a shower. I want more life, fucker.
There's no real physical reason for us to run down and fall apart. If, as we are often told, every cell in our body is replaced on a seven year cycle then surely the seven years is the maximum amount of aging we should have to put up with? And whilst we're on the subject, why have I still got that scar?
It's entropy again. After a while the DNA in our cells starts to get damaged and make mistakes, passing these mistakes onto its descendants - although cancer cells seem to be immune from this process of degeneration, which is absolutely typical (and which also means that if we could find some way of making ourselves out of cancer, we'd live forever).
"Every time I learn something new it pushes some old stuff out of my brain."Even if we did crack the problem of physically aging, we'd almost certainly come up against another problem sooner or later. Capacity. Specifically, somewhere to store all our memories. Unless we want to start carrying around USB Brain Extensions we're going to have to start archiving our older experiences. Mental decluttering.Homer Simpson
This is fair enough but seeing as our personalities may very well be the sum of our memories, some two thousand years down the line we might end up a completely different person, which for some people, like our friend Roy Batty to whom I obliquely referred above, would completely defeat the purpose of living forever.
It wouldn't bother me though. There'd still be an unbroken thread of consciousness reaching back through my lives and anyway, it would be fun to turn into someone else every couple of hundred years. It would be like reincarnation without having to believe in all the Weird Shit.
This idea has implications for identity and linear time as well, but I think I'll go into those on another occasion. Right now I'm trying to work out how I can move my memories of secondary school onto an external hard disk. And then burn it.
Seeing as I Think Therefore I Am apparently isn't good enough any more, I'm still trying to work out whether I am, and if so, what. This involves a lot of reading.
I've got The Emperor's New Mind and The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in my to read list; first I'm re-reading Dennett's Consciousness Explained to see if I can mentally digest it this time.
I haven't got far enough to make any decisions, but some of the author's ideas are fascinating. I was in particular taken with his theory of hallucinations and dreams. In it he discusses the sheer volume of data that would be required to convincingly fake a realistic scenario, given the free will of the audience. It would be impossible, he claims. Does that mean I can stop looking forward to Total Immersion Virtual Reality cause it ain't gonna happen? Well, not necessarily.
It's important to realise that the world around us that we're experiencing isn't actually reality, it's a complex model we've built up in our brains. It may match reality (whatever that is) fairly closely, but nevertheless isn't it. Dennett suggests that we build up this model by asking questions of the input we're receiving from our sensory organs - kind of like Twenty Questions although it's probably nearer twenty million.
They probably start out fairly simple like Is It A Square? and after many iterations end up with Is It A Best Of Take That CD? at which point we can make the decision to drop it on the floor and stamp on it. The questions we "ask" are likely skewed by our own experiences and memories, so in many ways it's true to say that we do all live in a world of our own.
Where do dreams and hallucinations come into all this?
Allegedly they're generated simply by lowering the threshold of the question-asking mechanism, by making it far less discerning. Is It A Square? Ah probably, sod it, yeah. When we're asleep the input from our sensory organs is probably some kind of red noise, static. Nevertheless, if the discrimination setting of the Question-Machine is turned down enough we'll start seeing shapes - as I mentioned in an earlier blog, when waking in the night I often notice what I call the Dream Engine still running, my field of view filled with a complex symmetrical pattern of geometrical shapes spinning and marching across the cortex. This theory would say they're generated by pointing the Question-Machine on a low setting at static.
Hallucinations and dreams do seem to have relevance to our hopes and fears - this may be because the questions the machine asks are always skewed in favour of what's bothering us at the time. If the school bully's making our life hell, it's not surprising there can be two of him in a dream - at times like this the question Is It the Bully? is probably one of the more commonplace ones. This would also explain why in dreams places and people change identity. Is It The Queen? Yes. followed a few minutes later by Is It Amy Winehouse? Yes.
So in order to create a convincing Total Immersion Virtual Reality game all we'd need to do is lower the threshold of the Question-Machine and then feed it a fairly low resolution scenario. The brain will fill in all the rest. It means that no two people will experience the game the same way - but then again that's true of life.
Game walkthroughs would be difficult to write though: "Go back into the antechamber to pick up the red key and then argue with your parents before opening the red gate to discover you forgot to get dressed."