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Memory and Time

David Cowles

May 2, 2024

“Patterns persist! More generally, 'pattern' per se persists.”

A recent article (4/23/2024) by Allison Parshall in the New York Times confirmed things we’ve known since childhood…and suggested others. Ms. Parshall reviewed the results of some recent studies comparing our subjective sense of time with its objective measurements:

“Study participants looked at images for varying lengths of time, and then held down a key to indicate how long they felt they were looking at the image. For images that are inherently more memorable—a person’s face, for example—participants thought they looked at them for longer than they did. And they also remembered these time-warping images better the next day.”

We all know that a minute can seem to pass by in a few seconds when we’re fully engaged in some project. We also know that a minute can feel like an hour when we’re in pain or when we are waiting for something time sensitive to occur (e.g. water to boil for pasta or the bell to ring at the end of a school day).

In the first case, we say that time is compressed (‘blue-shifted’); in the second, that time is dilated (‘red-shifted’). Coincidentally, we use the same terms when discussing the motions of galaxies vis-à-vis Earth. When an object is moving toward us, the wave length (time) is compressed; when the object is receding, time is dilated. 

So what’s new in these findings? First, the subject’s experience of time dilation/compression tends to form a pattern. By reviewing past behavior, experimenters were able to predict whether a new image would be ‘red or blue shifted’ by a given subject.

More interestingly, those patterns persist across subjects. For example, experimenters found that most participants ‘red shifted’ images of human faces as well as images containing fewer but larger objects. Even color mattered. Red images, conveniently but coincidentally, tend to be red-shifted and vice versa.

Most interesting, however, is the relationship between time dilation and memory. Red shifted images turned out to be more memorable than blue shifted ones. Essentially, memory is a function of felt, subjective time, rather than measured, objective time. Bottom line: patterns persist! More generally, ‘pattern’ per se persists.  

Ms. Parshall conjectures that the relationship between memorability and time dilation is recursive. An inherently more engaging image will trigger time dilation which in turn will make us more likely to remember that image. In turn, we are more likely to time dilate those images that most closely resemble better remembered images.

The local, mental process Parshall documents is recapitulated, physically, on a cosmic scale. In the first seconds after Big Bang, the cosmos was reasonably uniform. However, slight variations, possibly attributable to Heisenberg Uncertainty, appeared in the primordial CMB (‘Cosmic Microwave Background’).

Inflationary expansion amplified those variations. The universe we know and sometimes love began as the amplification of fundamental uncertainty. As the universe expanded it cooled, allowing energy to manifest as massive particles (e.g. electrons, protons, neutrons). Faint variations in the CMB became ‘seeds’ for the formation of matter.

In our patch we have massive discontinuity: matter, stars, solar systems, galaxies. These would not have formed, nor would living organisms, without something to offset the indiscriminately expansive force of Big Bang. That ‘something’ is Gravity! While inflation expands space, gravity contracts it. One quantum of mass requires c² quanta of energy (e = mc²). 

But note, gravity does not tend toward the restoration of the primal CMB. On the contrary, the attractive force of Gravity turns micro-fluctuations in the CMB into stars, galaxies, and eventually, black holes. Gravity ‘balances’ the expansive force of Big Bang, but gravity is a function of mass. More massive objects are more attractive, so they tend to accrete more matter over time.

At the moment of ‘creation’, the universe was uniform - within the limits imposed by uncertainty. The push and pull, warp and woof of process, has given us a world consisting of unimaginably massive objects (or singularities) and terrifyingly expansive space (vacuum, void). 

The force of cosmic expansion should be offset by the force of gravity. But instead of returning the fledgling universe to its pre-Bang state, gravity has given birth to an enormous and largely empty spacetime, pock marked by gigantically massive celestial bodies. 

If Big Bang is the thesis, Gravity is the antithesis. The synthesis, the world we live in, bears little superficial resemblance to either. 

The first comprehensive work of Christian Systematic Theology is the Gospel of John. It begins, “In the beginning was the logos.” (The Greek ‘logos is usually translated as ‘word’ – not wrong, but excessively narrow. ‘Pattern’ better captures the universality of logos.) 

John tells us that logos was with God, ab initio, and in fact was God. All things that come to be, including life itself, come to be through logos. As we noted above, pattern is what’s substructural…and this is why the mashed potatoes we serve on Thanksgiving are lumpy…and proud of it.


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