My brain is a time traveller

Alcohol; the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems

Homer J. Simpson

Just a couple of lines in and already the reader might well be wondering what on Earth this post is about. From a seemingly clickbait title to a quote from the Simpsons, it is certainly not obviously what I intend to talk about here. While I suspect we are about to take a circuitous route to our destination, I hope by the end of this post I can justify (or at least explain) the title, while the reason for the Homerian (not that Homer) quote will become apparent in just a moment.

Alcohol and Me

I don’t drink alcohol very often. It is not for any particular religious or cultural reason, nor is it related to a particular desire to be healthy. As a student, I would certainly drink more than I do now, but over the last decade or so the amount I have drunk has gone down to almost nothing. This has advantages at parties or when out for dinner, saving the need to wait for a taxi home at the end, but it does also mean I often drink far more soft drinks than I would like to, with their own set of associated health concerns.

One of the main reasons I do not drink often, is I tend to find I experience the effects of alcohol after only a glass or two. I am not suggesting a glass of wine sees me comatose, but I do begin to notice the effects after even a small amount. this can include a slowing of thinking, blurring of memory, feeling unsteadier on my feet and most frustrating of all in my view, feeling very warm and flushed. As I say these effects are not significant or debilitating, but they are noticeable to me.

For those of you who drink alcohol, you probably already find my apparent intolerance to even a glass of wine a little strange. What you will find even stranger, on the two most recent occasions I have had a drink, I have felt the effects coming on before I started drinking (I know, I know, when I write it down it sounds as stupid as you probably think it is, but bear with me, there is a point)!

On the first occasion, we were having friends over for dinner, and with dinner we shared a bottle or two of wine. While I did not know for certain I would drink alcohol, it was a fair bet I probably would, and for the couple of hours before the guests arrived (and I was sober) I had the distinct feeling of my thoughts slowing etc. as I described above. This feeling was amplified a little when I actually drank alcohol, but definitely felt real before I had touched a drop.

The second occasion happened while out for dinner with the wife. This time, I had no intention of drinking at all and had a Diet Coke with dinner. Despite this, I had the vague feelings of memory fog while eating dinner, and when the bill came, discovered we were given complimentary shots of liquor which I found delicious so consumed.

Try for a moment to withhold your incredulity and accept these anecdotes at face value (difficult I know). Assuming my experiences are correct, how can we explain them. More importantly, what do these examples tell us about the nature of time itself (see, I told you we were going somewhere interesting)?

First, a brief but important segue…

A Timeline

When you are talking about time, it can be easy to quickly get lost in the order of events, especially when trying to order events chronologically. Add alcohol into the mix and it can easily become a complicated mess. To try help us navigate through the options later, I have created a (very) simple timeline for us to follow.

  • Point A: the time before I consumed alcohol when I experienced the effects of alcohol
  • (Point A*: an additional point between A and B which will become useful later)
  • Point B: when I actually consumed alcohol
  • Point C: a point after the effects of alcohol has worn off, i.e. now as I write this

Keep this simple timeline in mind in the next section, I will be referring to the various time points throughout.

Explanations?

If we are for the moment assuming my experiences are real (the possibility I am imagining everything should of course be high on the list), what could explain what I have described? I have provided below, in no particular order, a couple of potential solutions for consideration.

Option 1: Anticipation

It is quite possible the anticipation of drinking alcohol led to me feeling as if I had consumed alcohol. In the dinner party scenario I was well aware alcohol would be consumed, and it is not unreasonable to have then anticipated a change in my thinking etc. which I then ascribed to myself at Point A. There is no doubt the brain is capable of creating the appearance of symptoms when a physical cause cannot be found (see also somatisation) so it is plausible my brain could have created the symptoms of drinking before I actually drank anything.

The problem, this does not work with the restaurant scenario. On this occasion, I had no idea I would be drinking alcohol at the end of the meal, so it would be hard for my brain to create the feeling of having drunk alcohol at Point A. Anticipation could explain the dinner party, but not I feel the restaurant.

Option 2: Selective Memory

I have given you two examples where I have experienced this phenomena, and as I sit here writing this post cannot recall any other examples. It could well be I am simply selectively remembering times when I have had feelings of being slower in thinking and then drank alcohol, while conveniently forgetting all the times I was either slowed in thinking and did not drink alcohol, or the times I drank alcohol with no effects beforehand.

Selectively recalling certain events over others is a well recognised issue, and could well be the explanation here. What it relies on is an acceptance of chance events happening (which they do) and me focussing on only the ones fitting my (potentially false) belief. What is harder to explain is why this has occurred consistently on the two occasions I have drunk alcohol in the last couple of months. Chance events happen. Twice in a row is still possible but less likely.

Option 3: Altered Memory

It is quite possible my memory of the events has been altered after the fact. Drinking alcohol we know can impact on memory formation and retention, so it is possible as I sit here at Point C, I am simply recalling feelings of having drunk alcohol before actually doing so because my memory has been unintentionally altered.

The problem with this explanation is the pesky Point A*. I distinctly recall thinking at the time I had experienced feelings of drinking alcohol, but at Point A* still had not done so. My memory at this point could therefore not have been affected by subsequent events at Point B.

Of course, to counter this, I am still writing this post at Point C. Maybe my memory of both Points A and A* are affected, and all I have to rely on now is my memory which may or may not be altered. Keep this option in mind, we will be coming back to it very soon.

Option 4: Time Travel

Finally we have come to the idea originally in the title of my post. In this option, somehow the effects of alcohol on my brain are able to travel back in time from Point B to Point A, so the effect I experienced then was true, it simply came from a near future consumption of alcohol.

I think this option is the easiest to refute. What, for example, is the mechanism by which these feelings are travelling in time? Why has this effect only appeared to occur when drinking alcohol, and why does it only occur over the space of an hour or two? Why not a day or a week? Time travel may be the more tantalising of the four options here, but unfortunately I also feel it is the least likely and can be all but dismissed.

When am I?

Option 3, altered memory, sounds very similar to the idea of Philosophical Presentism. In this view of the nature of time, only the present is real (hence the name) with neither the past nor the future existing. This might sound like a rather bizarre idea, after all we all (appear to) have memories of the past, yet it would provide a nice explanation for my scenarios above. If only the present moment (i.e. Point C) exists, it is reasonable to assume memories of the past (whatever that means in this universe) could be altered in such a way as to make me believe I was experiencing alcohol before I drank it. Of course if only the present exists it must be constantly changing instant by instant, but as I sit here in my present Point C, Points A, A* and B are nothing but memories created in the present which can easily be falsified.

An alternative view of time is that of the Growing Block Theory. In this view, the past and present exist, with the present continually moving on and leaving the past behind in its wake (so to speak, it is really hard to avoid using metaphors like this when considering time). In this view the future does not yet exist, but will be created as the present passes it, leaving it the past when the present has moved on (and if you have any idea what I mean at this point well done, as I think I am getting lost myself).

Both Presentism and the Growing Block are two of the three more commonly defended philosophical views of time. The problem, as can often be the case for philosophy; science has something to say on the matter. In this case, it is the work of a little known (!) scientist called Albert Einstein and his theory of General Relativity which can help us to at least begin to understand time.

The reason Einstein’s work helps? When you consider the effects of relativity, it is impossible to define what the present is. Each observer in the universe can experience a different present depending on the velocity they are travelling relative to each other, with it being quite possible for Observer A to experience what they believe to be the present, which would be the past for Observer B, and the future for Observer C. While this might appear counterintuitive, General Relativity as a theory is well supported by evidence, it is accepted science, and so the conclusion there is no such thing as the Universal Present is a valid one.

So this brings us to the third possibility for time. Remember two paragraphs ago I wrote two of the three when discussing Presentism and the Growing Block? You might well have missed it, especially given the mind-bending nature of what we are discussing here, but there is a third potential view of time; Eternalism. Simply put, in this explanation the past, present and future all exist simultaneously (I know this is really not the best choice of words, but I am struggling to think how else to describe it). This is convenient when it comes to defining when the present is given the problems of relativity; all presents exist at once, and it will depend on your point of view whether a present is actually the present, or your past or future.

Is this the end? Or the beginning?

Thinking or writing about time is often confusing, our brains work in a particular way so that we experience time running from past to present with the future unwritten, but as with so much of modern physics, reality may not actually be quite what our brains believe it to be. If you are not completely bamboozled by all of this, the YouTube channel PBS Space Time has a fantastic video of the physics of time (in fact a series, this video is the first) presented by an actual physicist who knows much more about what he is talking about than I do.

I will end this post with a couple of conclusions, hopefully reaching the point I promised I would so many paragraphs ago.

  1. For me, it is fairly certain we live in an eternal universe. The evidence from science seems to disprove the other two common possibilities, and unless someone provides evidence to disprove the eternal universe, it is good enough for me
  2. I lean towards Option 2, selective memory, as the most likely explanation for my experiences. I can think of other examples when this has occurred (thinking about spiders then finding one in the room, for example) and it probably best explains the scenarios I described
  3. I don’t think my brain can time travel, and even so stand by the title, even if it is a little clickbaity. Hopefully in this post we have done a little theoretical time travel, and I know for one my brain has had a good work out in the process.

As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Are you an Eternalist? Presentist? Maybe you support the Growing Block. Have I considered all the possible explanations for my strange experiences, and have you experienced something similar before?

Finally, however you view time, make sure you use it wisely, and I hope you have a fantastic day!

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