The Existential Buffer – how and why our brains filter the Here and Now

Mac Tonnies @ 18-06-2008

Mac Tonnies - Loving the AlienMac Tonnies is planning a voyage into inner space. Where else can he go to find out what’s happening in the Real reality that our brains keep hidden from us?


The human brain is commonly cited as the world’s superlative computer. For the time-being, it’s the best we have; not only is it capable of processing vast amounts of information, it manages the neat trick of being sentient. But for all of its intricacy and potential, the brain seems fated to never experience the present in real-time. We must remain satisfied at parsing reality at the electrochemical speed limit imposed by the nervous system – because, as Terry Bisson famously reminds us, we’re made out of meat.

There’s something uniquely unsettling about this state of affairs. The microsecond delay between the receipt of a visual signal and its subsequent decoding might seem trivial enough, but it constitutes a nagging existential dilemma. Rationally or not, I’m not satisfied with delayed impressions of reality; I’d like to strip away the temporal veil and, for once, see the unadulterated truth.

Perhaps I’m wary of any would-be neurological hackers. After all, a sufficiently capable technology (human or otherwise) might choose to exploit the gulf between “now” and the processed version accessed by our minds. (The rogue AIs of The Matrix certainly weren’t above such devilish tricks.) Conversely, maybe we need that gulf – maybe it’s a kind of buffer that’s evolved, in part, to keep us from drinking too deeply at the well of the Real (where literally unimaginable horrors might lurk, eager to hijack our sense of self and partake of the slippery phenomenon we call “consciousness”).

But while our hardwired inability to experience the present is our cognitive Achilles heel, there’s at least a possibility that it plays a role in texturing or even helping to create subjective reality for our benefit. Our brains might be error-prone, but they’re not stupid: they realize they’re receiving delayed signals and go about conjuring phantasms based on what they “know” about reality. As a result, we wander an automatically concocted virtual landscape, navigating not by touch or sight but on contrived approximations of touch and sight.

Occasionally, I manage to convince myself – if only fleetingly – that I can actually feel my brain busily generating an updated reality around me, keeping Now at bay by weaving new impressions constructed atop the ashes of the old until all is a blur of faded certainties. And then the old hardware kicks in and I’m back where I belong, a complacent observer of a present I know is only approximately true.

The approximated Now might seem “real” enough to us – but would we ever really know if it wasn’t? That’s the itch I’d like to scratch, knowing perfectly well that I can’t so long as the universe is governed by machinations of gross physical matter. (The electrochemical sequences that tell us who, what and where we are strike me as unnecessarily Byzantine, like the whirring, clacking complexity of some Victorian gear-work as compared to its modern incarnation as a computer desktop widget. I‘m not explicitly endorsing the time-worn posthumanist notion of mind-uploading, but . . .)

Even if we could bypass the speed limit imposed by human neurophysiology, we’d still be at the mercy of time-delay. Even synapses capable of transmitting at the speed of light would leave us floundering in the present’s wake, just as light from distant stars reveals a Cosmos thousands or even millions of years out-of-date. Astronomers, not content with passively observing distant stellar phenomena, routinely extrapolate, using the arsenal of science to minimize the gulf of years that separates the solar system from even its closest neighbors.

In our quest for complete understanding of outer and inner space, how long until the first high-resolution telescopes are trained on the fabled, uncharted realm we call “Now”?


MacMugshot Mac Tonnies is an author/essayist whose futuristic fiction and speculative essays have appeared in many print and online publications. He’s the author of Illumined Black, a collection of science fiction short-stories, and After the Martian Apocalypse (Paraview Pocket Books, 2004). Mac maintains Posthuman Blues, a widely read blog devoted to emerging technologies and paranormal phenomena, and is a member of the Society for Planetary SETI Research. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where he writes, reads and surfs the Net. He is currently at work on a new book.

[Loving the Alien column header image credited to RedMonkeyVirus]

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5 Responses to “The Existential Buffer – how and why our brains filter the Here and Now”

  1. Le Wart Ears says:

    I don’t follow: in a cause and effect universe, there is no way to observe something as it happens, it is the process of observation takes time itself. And besides, what difference does it make?

    The “buffer” you refer to doesn’t actually change the course of events, nor can it alter things between ourselves and the actual reality: any changes would become apparent we received the message. So what’s the big deal? we know there is a latency going on, and we can minimise that latency, but we can’t eliminate it. What’s more, and this is the part that I don’t get, how would eliminating the latency change anything?

  2. Mac Tonnies says:

    Le Wart Ears–

    “So what’s the big deal?”

    It’s not so much a practical problem as a philosophical oddity. At least it is to me.

    “We know there is a latency going on, and we can minimise that latency, but we can’t eliminate it.”

    Exactly. No matter hard we try it’s still there. I think this is uniquely frustrating even if it ultimately means our delayed approximation of reality is every bit as good as the real thing.

    “What’s more, and this is the part that I don’t get, how would eliminating the latency change anything?”

    I didn’t say it would. But eliminating it would at least result in an authentic sense if reality, whereas now we’re hobbled by the “meat barrier.” Again, the delay probably has no significant practical bearing on our perception of reality, but I find it strangely frustrating.

  3. Avi Solomon says:

    We have even more serious barriers to perceiving “reality” – just look up what Gurdjieff meant by “Kundabuffer”!

  4. Dia Sobin says:

    thanks avi solomon, i learned something new today!

    “…At the time of the original collision and the resulting threat to the maintenance of cosmic harmony in our planetary neighborhood, “a Most High Commission consisting of Angels and Archangels, specialists in the work of World Creation and World Maintenance,” had “come down” from the Central Sun, and decided that this special organ kundabuffer needed to be installed in human beings. This organ was designed to prevent humans from developing objective consciousness, because if they did they would see the “terror of their situation”, namely that the prime purpose of their existence was “to maintain a detached fragment of the planet (i.e., “food for the moon”) and being convinced of their slavery to circumstances utterly foreign to them, they would be unwilling to continue their existence and would destroy themselves.” So the kundabuffer that was installed had two functions: one, to cause human beings to “see reality upside down”, and two, to engender in them sensations of pleasure and enjoyment. After the immediate planetary crisis had passed , a further delegation of archangelic engineers and scientists caused the implant to be removed, but its consequences, as mentioned above, became crystallized and have remained part of human genetic inheritance ever since…”

    existentialism is the way to madness.

    then again, maybe mac and gurdjieff are on to something. what size exactly has a point in time and how much volume has experience?

  5. σεδ says:

    strange. in the beginning i was in a hurry to get rid of this page..because of that Blue pic. now i like to look at it