Thursday, December 22, 2016

We are all time travelers

This is a political blog but from time to time, I travel a different path and digress into psychological science. Bear with me. I’ll get back to politics at the end of this post.

Consider the equation ΔE = c (O - E) and let E = E + ΔE where c is a decimal fraction (0 < c < 1). With successive iterations, E will converge on O.

This mathematical system was proposed as part of a theory of Pavlovian conditioning by two Yale psychologists, Robert Rescorla and Allan Wagner in 1972 (the Rescorla-Wagner model). The equations, as an instance of error correction, are also the foundation of a form of artificial intelligence known as artificial neural networks (see parallel distributed processing aka connectionism).

Now let me put a different twist on all that. In the equations, O stands for what is observed, what actually happens in the environment and E stands for what you expect to happen. When there is a discrepancy, you modify your expectations. That is, you learn from that discrepancy. You use your memory of past experiences to shape your anticipation of the future.

In order for all this to work, your memory (E) must be reliable. If it is not, thinking now of E as a random variable, then E never converges on O. In other words, again, your anticipation of the future depends on the accuracy of your memory of the past. And it depends on the reliability of the past. On one fictional account, Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, the past protects its accuracy and is resistant to change even from attempts by a time traveler to change it.

The New Yorker science writer, Maria Konnikova, explains the importance of memory for personal time travel in How to build a time machine.

Before long [that is, after 1895 and H. G. Wells’ Time Traveller] , it was difficult to imagine an existence in which the idea of travelling through time didn’t exist. It quickly permeated science, with Einstein’s theory of relativity and notions of how to surpass the speed of light; found its way into literature, with Virginia Woolf’s “stretching and warping” of time; and seeped into popular culture, with vanity exercises in building time capsules. Why did time travel become so central, so quickly? Part of the answer is surely that the most central part of time travel is the one we carry with us, always: our memory. For what is remembering something but travelling through time? Once the notion of time travel starts to come naturally to the human mind, it is supremely easy to assimilate it into our mode of thinking. We don’t have to do any mental calisthenics to fathom how it could come to pass. Memory enables personal time travel immediately. If you have no notion of the passage of time, you cannot project yourself to a future point in it. In recent years, it has become clear that the centrality of memory is even more extreme: the very way our memory works allows us to imagine different futures, not just recall what has taken place. Memory is the very stuff of time travel.

For some time, scientists have known that memory is anything but precise. It doesn’t record the past accurately, and it plays tricks on us. For decades, this was seen as a kind of design flaw. Now some researchers suspect that the fallibility of memory isn’t necessarily a quirk or negative side effect of neural wiring but a necessity for being able to imagine the future. At Harvard, Daniel Schacter, a psychologist who studies memory, proposes that thinking about the past is absolutely necessary for imagining the future. “Imagining the future depends on much of the same neural machinery that is needed for remembering the past,” he writes. What’s more, the fact that the past is flexible—that our memory “sins,” to borrow a word from Schacter’s writing—is what allows us to imagine things that have never happened. We recombine elements from what we recall into memories that have never taken place. The future is based on a realignment of what we know, not a straightforward recapitulation of it. Schacter calls this the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis. If our memory is too fixed, we cannot flexibly recombine elements. “Think of the brain as a fundamentally prospective organ that is designed to use information from the past and the present to generate predictions about the future,” he explains.

Gleick [the author of Time Travel is not a believer in the feasibility of actual time travel, now or ever. “It does not exist. It cannot,” he writes. We cannot go back in time and change how Clinton approached the election. All we can do is learn from what happened, and wait for the chance to do it better.

But to do “it” better, we must remember the past so that we can imagine the future. And the failure to do so may explain partly the outcome of the 2016 election.

Clive Wearing was a prominent musician who, in 1985, lost his ability to remember. As far as he was concerned, only the last few seconds of any given day had actually happened. “It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment" …

Wearing’s amnesia came with benefits: he truly lived in the present moment. … every moment was to him a new gift; every meeting with his wife, a revelation; every piece of good news, a source of incomparable joy. But he was forever stuck in the pre-time-travel era—and for him even the time travel of imagination was not possible. And that is a tragedy in itself …

It is as if Trump’s supporters desperately wanted to travel backwards in time but were unable to do so, unable to reflect on the past and thus, like amnesiacs, were unable to imagine a very unpleasant future. That future is unfolding day by day.

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