Living in the Past: How Our Consciousness Lags Behind the Present

Brains are bizarre. There is much we don’t know about the critical operating mass between our ears, and the little that we do know raises more unsettling questions about our perception of the world than most of us would care to contemplate. Take, for instance, the fact that we are all quite literally living in the past. The “present,” which humans so fondly reference and claim, never truly exists for us. What you think is happening in “real time” has actually already happened, and you’re receiving it a beat late. Let’s take a look at how we’re all stuck just a moment behind reality.



Our brains are constantly seeking to merge input and signals to provide a cohesive image of the world. This includes stimuli that occurs at different times. Sound complicated? Touch your toe and nose simultaneously. Did you feel them both at the same time? That, as overly simple as it may seem, is an example of your brain blending two signals that should have reached you at different times. When you touch your toe and your nose at the same time, you should feel the touch on your nose first, as its signal reaches your brain before the signal from your toe does. But you don’t. You feel them as though the signals reached your brain simultaneously.


So What?

This means that your brain is always on a mission to make sure the world that you receive is a world that makes sense. Even though you should have felt the touch on your nose first, your brain went through all the trouble to rework those sensations and provide you with a more understandable product. Thanks, brain. However, this means that the brain, instead of giving us this cohesive image in “real time,” is giving it a few moments behind. In fact, studies have shown that the brain is a whole 80-milliseconds behind. That doesn’t sound like much, but the implications are immense. Your brain is acting as a filter for your world. What does that mean for your reality?


Oh, All Sorts of Things

The brain also “papers over” gaps in information, such as the moments you miss when you blink. And, no- your brain isn’t perfect. This 80-millisecond rule provides plenty of fun with illusions and tricks that play upon the different speeds of different signals, such as sound and sight. But it also has serious ramifications on your memory. If what you’re receiving right now isn’t even the present, and sometimes has been glossed over so as to provide a more balanced whole, how can you trust what you remember? How can you trust what you’ve seen? Occasionally the retroactive constructions the brain makes for us are wrong, as proven by the flash-lag effect. Do you really want to argue over who said what when the actual events are even in question?

Making the Best of It

Clap your hands. Did you hear the clap at the same time that you saw it? Are you sure? That wasn’t the “reality.” The “reality” was that you heard the clap before you saw it. You process auditory signals faster than visual ones. So how do we handle knowing that we all live in the past, and that past is not necessarily an accurate representation of the present? That’s up to you to decide. While the human body may feel omnipotent and omniscient, it’s only a biological machine that has just as many drawbacks as it has advances. The brain is an astonishing phenomenon of complexity and power- but it’s not perfect. Don’t forget that, indeed, after all, we’re “only human.”