Living in the present by neurological necessity
What would it be like to always live fully in the present? There’s no need for thought experiments when we have real case studies to tell us.* Patient K.C. (a.k.a. N.N.), who was 36 at the time he was studied around 1988, cannot remember any events from his past or imagine future events. For him time is only an abstract concept with rules like “3pm comes after 2pm.”
Here’s a conversation with him:
PSYCHOLOGIST: What will you be doing tomorrow?
N.N.: I don’t know.
PSYCHOLOGIST: Do you remember the question?
N.N.: About what I’ll be doing tomorrow?
PSYCHOLOGIST: Yes, would you describe your state of mind when you try to think about it?
N.N.: Blank, I guess . . . It’s like being asleep . . . like being in a room with nothing there and having a guy tell you to go find a chair, and there’s nothing there . . . like swimming in the middle of a lake. There’s nothing to hold you up or do anything with.
What set me onto his story is that in Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes N.N.’s condition in negative terms. Yet in a sense, K.C. attained the form of “enlightenment” that many Buddhist-inspired self-help gurus advocate! Let’s first look at Gilbert’s words:
“How bizarre and surreal it must be to serve a life sentence in the prison of the moment, trapped forever in the perpetual now, a world without end, a time without later…we are tempted to dismiss it as a fluke–an unfortunate, rare, and freakish aberration brought on by traumatic brain injury.”
Do “prison” and “trapped” convey the right metaphor here? According to one of his case studies, probably not:
“K.C. is a quiet, polite, and cooperative person. He seldom complains
about anything. In response to direct questions he says that his life is
good, although he concedes that he has problems with his memory. When
left alone for a longer period of time, he shows no restlessness or agitation.
When he is engaged in conversation he pays close attention to other
speakers, his attention does not wander, he slays alert throughout, and
he always responds appropriately. He has good manners and displays
no social disinhibitions.”
He sounds like a content, agreeable guy. Whether that is attributable to “living in the present” depends on his personality before the accident, but at the least we can say he has not become unhappy. That’s a score for the Buddhists and against Gilbert. But keep in mind that “K.C.’s ability to learn new information is very poor.” In addition, he lives with his parents because of cognitive deficiencies.
“K.C. does exhibit a number of other classic frontal signs: He virtually never initiates any optional activi1y on his own, has difficulty planning complex actions, and does not respond when given broad directions (e.g., “Write a brief summary of your life.”)”
All these deficiencies are a score for Gilbert, who emphasizes that planning for the future is a key aspect of being human. K.C.’s brain damage clearly did some harm, and yet it also could have done some good. In the ideological scuffle between Buddhists and Western psychologists, I call K.C.’s case a tie.
*Speaking of case studies turned thought experiments, meet Matt Frerking, who becomes paralyzed when he feels strong positive emotions.