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Society of Mind

25.4 the sense of continuity

Imagine what these frame-arrays can do! They let us visualize imaginary scenes, such as what might happen when we move, because the frames for what we can expect to see are filled in automatically. Not only that, but by using other processes to fill in all those terminals, we can imagine scenes and views of things we've never seen before. Still, many people find it hard to consider the thought that mental images could be based on anything as crude as frame-arrays. The world of our experience seems so perfectly continuous. Could such smooth thoughts emerge from sudden frame-to-frame jumps? If the mind kept jerking from one frame to another, wouldn't what we experience seem equally abrupt? Yet we rarely feel our minds change frames, any more than we perceive a visual scene as composed of disconnected spots of light. Why do we have the sense that things proceed in smooth, continuous ways? Is it because, as some mystics think, our minds are part of some flowing stream? I think it's just the opposite: our sense of constant, steady change emerges from the parts of mind that manage to insulate themselves against the continuous flow of time!

In other words, our sense of smooth progression from one mental state to another emerges not from the nature of that progression itself, but from the descriptions we use to represent it. Nothing can seem jerky except what is represented as jerky. Paradoxically, our sense of continuity comes from our marvelous insensitivity to most kinds of changes rather than from any genuine perceptiveness. Existence seems continuous to us not because we continually experience what is happening in the present, but because we hold to our memories of how things were in the recent past. Without those short-term memories, all would seem entirely new at every instant, and we would have no sense at all of continuity or, for that matter, of existence.

One might suppose that it would be wonderful to possess a faculty of continual awareness. But such an affliction would be worse than useless, because the more frequently our higher-level agencies change their representations of reality, the harder it is for them to find significance in what they sense. The power of consciousness comes not from ceaseless change of state, but from having enough stability to discern significant changes in our surroundings. To notice change requires the ability to resist it. In order to sense what persists through time, one must be able to examine and compare descriptions from the recent past. We notice change in spite of change, not because of it.

Our sense of constant contact with the world is not a genuine experience; instead, it is a form of immanence illusion. We have the sense of actuality when every question asked of our visual-systems is answered so swiftly that it seems as though those answers were already there. And that's what frame-arrays provide us with: once any frame fills its terminals, the terminals of the other frames in its array are also filled. When every change of view engages frames whose terminals are already filled, albeit only by default, then sight seems instantaneous.