The Benefits of Time And Distance

The Benefits of Time and Distance

Is adding Distance always a bad thing, though? Maybe not. Physical, Temporal, Conceptual, and Reactive Distance can be our allies, when we’re negotiating the increasingly complicated world. Few of us like being taken by surprise, especially when the stakes are high or there’s danger involved. So, you step back from a stranger who suddenly appears in your path. You pause – or stall – to make sense of something they said or something you noticed about them that doesn’t make sense to you right away. You may know you “have a ways to go” in order to make up your mind about an important career change. So you delay your decision, until you have more information. That adds time. It distances you from your final “destination” of completion or understanding or reaction. But increasing Physical and Temporal Distance (stepping back and pausing) can help shorten your Conceptual and Reactive Distance, enabling you to A) get clear about what’s happening, B) figure out how you’re going to respond, and C) respond in a way that suits you best. Sometimes a delay can actually speed up your ultimate reaction – and also let you do it more deliberately, so you waste less time on do-overs.

Far from being something which divides people in a negative way, adding separation between yourself and others can actually help you connect more effectively with them, than you would if you were to simply leap without looking. For example, if a new neighbor suddenly shows up in front of you while you’re unpacking the moving truck, and you don’t stop to assess the situation, the conversation can take a wrong turn quickly. If you just start talking about only what you’re thinking about at that moment – how heavy the box is, how much your back hurts, or when that recruiter will return your call – your neighbor may think you’re an over-sharing narcissist. If, however, you pause to give yourself time to adjust, and you spend the time and effort to understand what your neighbor wants to talk about, you can adjust in ways that are socially appropriate and consistent with their expectations. Plus, you don’t look like a self-absorbed whiner.

In many cases, of course, temporal and distances between people can push them apart. Never talking to your coworkers is not the kind of thing that supports group cohesiveness. At least, not in the entire group. It may enhance the cohesiveness of the other people who talk about things you don’t care about, but it doesn’t make you a more valued team member. If someone comes up to you and starts talking about something, and you stay silent for no apparent reason, that can be off-putting. It can separate you even more than you were before.

Conceptual Distance, especially, can get us in trouble, if we don’t take care with how we cross it. We can jump to conclusions about mysterious others and we fill in missing details with our own suspicions based on what we think, rather than what truly is. People are notoriously inconsistent at interpreting what’s really going on, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it. Someone unfamiliar may come up to you, and you back off momentarily so you can get your bearings and figure out how to act or talk to them correctly. But when they see you pull back, they may think you don’t want to engage with them at all. You may really be trying to figure out how to handle the situation right, but they may take it the wrong way. If they’ve have had lots of other people pull back out of fear, hatred, or bigotry, they could easily assume that you’re doing exactly the same thing as those other people – and for all the same reasons. They’re “bridging” their Conceptual Distance about what your behavior means, mistaking your intention to be appropriate as immediate rejection… and then reacting to that interpretation, rather than the reality of the situation.

This is just one example of our Conceptual Distance backfiring. It happens all the time in many different ways, especially in uncertain social situations.

But while separation and divisiveness – and the Othering we discussed earlier – can feel off-putting and hurtful, the fact remains that separation is a normal, built-in part of our lives. And we are naturally inclined to creatively work with distance between ourselves and our surroundings. Introducing distance between ourselves and our environment isn’t always a sign of alienation and divisiveness. In some cases, it’s actually done in the interest of connecting more effectively with a person, situation, or thing.

Ultimately, separation lies at the heart of our human experience. Physical, Temporal, Conceptual, and Reactive Distances are all facts of life. And they are at constant play in our lives, in an extended series of back-and-forth exchanges between us, others, and the world at large. That interplay fills in the gaps and takes time in its extended process, as smaller “chunks” of not-knowing distance are crossed, more information is gathered, more complete considerations come up, and the ongoing process builds to a final result.

Whether we like it or not, nothing is as close as it seems. We do unconsciously realize it, however, for the language of separation is woven throughout the ways we describe how we relate to the world. We’re “not even close” to understanding something. When we’re introverted, people consider us “distant”. When something is happening in the future, we say it’s “a ways off”. Distance is an undeniably central aspect of our makeup, something which we both embrace and work to overcome in our own individual ways.

And we can choose to work with it any way we like.

As we discussed before, the immediacy of that comforting experience is something of an illusion

As we discussed before, the immediacy of that comforting experience is something of an illusion. Everything you sense in the course of an average day seems to register immediately, but it actually needs to cross considerable physical distance for it to even reach your brain. The sight of an open parking space has to make it from “over there” to your eyes and then get passed along your ocular nerves to your brain so you can make sense of it and make the right move. The feeling of sucking dampness around your shoes has to travel the lengths of nerves from your feet to your spinal cord and brain. The taste of soda water, sandwiches, and cake has to make its way from your tongue to the inside of your skull. It’s a relatively short trip, but it’s a trip nonetheless.

And when sensory data gets to your brain, it still needs to leap an enormous number of gaps between axons and dendrites to be taken in and decoded. That happens not once, not twice, but many, many times during even the simplest of experiences. Once all that data is sorted within your brain, your body and your mind need to figure out what it means and what to do about it. Finally, additional signals need to make the return trip down the spinal cord, across your synaptic-cleft-riddled neural connections, and back to the muscles and tissues closest to the origin of the sensory data, in order to react. All these steps involve separations of matter, time, and comprehension, which you can never completely escape.

Whether you’re walking across a wet field and realizing that your feet are wet and making squishing sounds, or you’re coasting through a parking lot obstacle course of hurried, distracted pedestrians, everything going on around you isn’t ever going to register instantaneously. It may seem immediate, but all sensation process takes time to cross the inches (or feet) to reach a place where your neurons can make sense of it. Even if it’s a split-second lag (that you never notice), there’s still time involved. Our central nervous system is a bit like Bruce Lee. He moved so fast in his movies, they had to slow down the frame rate of the film (twice) so people could actually see what he was doing. If they didn’t slow things down, he was just a blur, and all the visual information about his prowess was lost. He was so fast, other people didn’t even have time to react to his moves.

The fact that most (if not all) of us believe we can have direct contact with our immediate world is testament to the human system’s amazing capacity to process information at high speeds and let us feel like we’re a part of it all. But in the most intimate sense – from the synaptic level, to our distinct internal organs, to our individual external limbs – we are in fact separated by significant distance from everything and everyone. It might seem a bit… alienating… but think about it. If we didn’t have an element of separateness within us, we would be glommed together in a useless blob, incapable of movement, even life. Our internal organs each have different functions, different properties. They need to be separate from each other to work at all.

It’s Almost Too Easy To Be Consumed …

It’s almost too easy to be consumed by a wide array of fascinations in the course of a day, ironically thanks to all the devices we own for the very purpose of speeding things up. Our mobile devices, which put us in touch with others immediately and bring the rest of the world to us in a matter of seconds, can be “time sinks” that lure us into hours of casual browsing on social media… when we’re supposed to be doing something productive. And our “time-saving” appliances can take up extra time with added layers of complexity we have to master, as well as when they don’t work as expected. The glut of complex information can clog our thinking and add steps to formerly simple procedures, adding exponentially to the temporal and conceptual distance between ourselves and the world with which we’re interacting. The very thing(s) we hope will bring us closer to our world, actually separate us even more.

The whole process of deriving meaning and taking action, and then gathering more data to develop a closer conceptual connection with our world can take time. But we can’t avoid that deeper process we have to follow, as the laws of physics and perception widen our temporal distance. Ironically, we may also find that the closer we come to understanding something, the more we realize we cannot know – and thus, cannot fully understand. The Conceptual-Gap-closing process turns in on itself, and we may be left wondering why we started asking questions, to begin with.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves. Surely, there must be a way to learn more, to work faster, to shrink distances, thus enhancing our connection to the world around us. We hunger for Unity. We seek connection. We’ve built vast networks to be in closer contact with others, and we regularly choose proximity over distance in our everyday decisions. All for the sake of overcoming distance, eradicating division.

I know a lot of people who agree with what Parker Palmer says in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life:

I pay a steep price when I live a divided life — feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. How can I affirm another’s identity when I deny my own? How can I trust another’s integrity when I defy my own? A fault line runs down the middle of my life, and whenever it cracks open—divorcing my words and actions from the truth I hold within—things around me get shaky and start to fall apart.

But up north, in the wilderness, I sense the wholeness hidden “in all things.” It is in the taste of wild berries, the scent of sunbaked pine, the sight of the Northern Lights, the sound of water lapping the shore, signs of a bedrock integrity that is eternal and beyond all doubt. And when I return to a human world that is transient and riddled with disbelief, I have new eyes for the wholeness hidden in me and my kind and a new heart for loving even our imperfections.

Many of us have experienced this restorative effect through our senses. Connection with nature has been linked with greater levels of well-being and happiness. The irony is, our ability to sense Unity is by its very nature fragmented, as alternating electrical and chemical impulses are ferried across a network of billions of interconnected – but absolutely divided – cells.

Divided Days In The Life

Divided Days in the Life

Covering distance is something we do instinctively – so much so, that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And just as our awareness is uneven, closing the gaps doesn’t happen consistently across time and space, comprehension and action. Indeed, shortening one type of distance may actually increase other kinds of separation in our experience. We may use cheat codes to win a video game – a great way to reduce the Temporal Distance involved in finishing the game, as well as simulating greater comprehension. But while we may increase our score more quickly, we’re avoiding learning the intricate steps required to do it on our own. We save time, but we we certainly don’t learn much that will make us more proficient (i.e., capable of closing Conceptual Gaps) in the future. We may be no smarter after “winning” the game, than when we started. At other times we may try to reduce Conceptual Separation, and end up extending Temporal Distance. In the process of understanding something better (i.e., shortening the distance to knowing), you can end up complicating matters and making it even harder to get things done.

For example, say you want to learn your way around the back roads of the new area you just moved to. First you need to invest a fair amount of mental activity and time in gathering information… parsing it… and then figuring out how it all fits together. You take extra time to drive around the area, exploring different routes and finding the ones that are least busy. You learn as you go, closing Conceptual Gaps in the process, but knowing too much about your optional routes can make it harder for you to quickly decide whether to turn right or left, whether to head north or south. And when you get caught up in a traffic jam on the interstate, other drivers who know absolutely nothing about an area who decide to just sit tight, may actually get where they’re going faster than you, as you take a “quick” countryside detour that takes 20 minutes to travel, versus the 12-minute wait on the highway.

In some ways, we have considerably reduced the Temporal Distance in our lives, especially with our email, telephone, texting, and video chat. We can now communicate instantaneously with each other – individually and collectively. Instead of looking up a number in a phone book, we can tap a button on smart phone and not only pull up a number but also dial it. No question needs to go unanswered for more than a few minutes, as your smartphone is always at the ready, connecting you to an ever-widening network of information sources.

But as we speed things up, we often end up slowing things down even more, adding distance between ourselves and our ultimate goal(s) without ever realizing it – and frustrating ourselves in the process. One of the ways we increase our Temporal Distance is by not paying attention. We can be so distracted by the shiny objects on our smartphone screens that we’re blinded to everything else, and it takes us a while to refocus on what we should be doing.

Just as data bottlenecks slow down online networks, the sheer glut of information inundating our sensory networks can actually keep us from sensing what else is there. As you’re sitting with your lover in a brand new park in an unfamiliar area, savoring the taste of your picnic lunch, fretting over your damp shoes, and surveying the sheep on the hill in the distance, you may not have enough attentional resources left over to notice the gathering clouds overhead… or the sudden silence that’s replaced the yells and calls of competing sports teams. We may have so much stimuli coming at us all at once, we can’t process it simultaneously.

Just like the above example of connecting dots, we all go through a sort of “cognitive travel”

Just like the above example of connecting dots, we all go through a sort of “cognitive travel” repeatedly throughout each day. Driving to work, you see someone’s turn signal; you go from simply seeing a light flashing to realizing they’re about to change lanes. Approaching the parking lot at work, you see there are no open spaces near the building, and you realize you’re going to have to walk through the drizzle. You remember that you left your umbrella at home, and you decide that you’re not going to walk – you’re going to sprint for the door. At your desk, you see that things have been moved around… and then you see the birthday present your coworkers left in front of your monitor. You’d arrived at the office thinking nobody knows it’s your birthday, but now it’s clear they do.

Just like dealing with physical and time-based separation, the conceptual figuring-out process can also take place both internally on a microscopic basis, or on a much larger external scale. Our systems “know” how to derive contextual meanings from physical sensations – extreme hot or cold, sense of threat, huger, thirst, the need to empty the bladder or bowels, and all the other physical stimuli we take in on a daily basis. Some 15 senses are continuously informing our physical vehicles about the world around us, and our brains/bodies interpret that information and decide what to do about it.

The fresh scents and warm sunlight of a fine spring day lifts your spirits, even before you figure out that the chores can wait. The sun is bright, so you squint and put on your sunglasses. The ground is wet underfoot, so you jump back instinctively and turn to find another route. Whether you’re breathing or itching or spreading your arms wide to regain your balance after you stumble, your body is interpreting myriad sensations (many of which you’ll never consciously detect) with an intelligence that keeps you balanced and kicks you into action. It can happen in a moment – even less – but your systems still go through a complex process of figuring out what to do.

Indeed, our combined Temporal and Conceptual gap-crossing leads us to Action, or perhaps more accurately, Reaction. One would hope so, anyway. It’s one thing to transmit information from its sensory origin to brain, and then make sense of it. But the human system often needs to actually do something with that information. One of the main reasons the human body picks up sensory input, to begin with, is to maintain homeostasis. The senses tell the heart and lungs when to speed up or slow down to keep oxygen levels steady. They detect pain to help the body avoid damage. They notice potential danger in sights, sounds, tastes, and touch, and (ideally) the rest of the system acts on that information.

Physical, Temporal, and Conceptual Distances all combine in Reactive Distance, lengthening or shortening it, depending on their own degrees of separation. Since we live in a 3-dimensional world, subject to the laws of physics, you can’t react more quickly than the physical bounds of a situation. You can’t make your response faster than the time gaps included in the situation. And you can’t rush the meaning-making process that lets you wrap your head around what’s going on. The dependencies on these three elements certainly make things more… interesting.

Take slamming on the brakes while you’re driving, for example. Driver reaction time ranges from .07 seconds (bare minimum) to 3 seconds, with 2.3 seconds being the average. Considering everything that needs to happen – the transmission of sensory data, the translation of electrical signals into chemical ones, and then back again to electrical, the interpretation of what’s happening, and the decision (conscious or unconscious) about how to react, and then the return communication to the body about what to do in response – under three seconds is pretty speedy.

But when you’re traveling at 75mph, even 2.3 seconds is a long time. According to the Car Stopping Distance Calculator, at 75mph (121km/hr), in 2.3 seconds your vehicle will travel 253 feet (77 meters) before you “see the hazard, decide to brake and actually apply the brakes and is directly proportional to speed.” That’s called the “Thinking Distance”, and only after that’s done, does the braking distance of 281 feet (86 meters) take effect. The total stopping distance is 534 feet, or 163 meters – the length of nearly two football fields. And about 20% of that is covered just while you’re perceiving and acting up on a hazard. This is under ideal conditions, for an alert driver on a dry surface, traveling in a well-maintained car.

No matter how sharp and quick we imagine ourselves, no matter how well-trained we may be, our systems are still limited by temporal and conceptual distance, which prevent us from immediately interacting with our surroundings. Not factoring that in, and failing to adjust your behavior accordingly (e.g., driving at a safe speed and distance behind the car in front of you) is a contributing factor in many a serious car accident – and plenty of other catastrophes.

It’s fine if you successfully handle physical, temporal, and conceptual distance, but if you remain passive and non-reactive, that cancels everything out. Listening to your co-workers and never bothering to respond to their attempts at conversation, doesn’t do much for your working relationship (or your future at the company). Putting your hand on a hot pan handle and feeling the burn, but not pulling back, is a great way to spend the afternoon in the ER instead of having a picnic in the park.

Failing to react appropriately to incoming information has caused a whole lot of confusion, amusement, and hurt in our world. We’re constantly being inundated with sensory information of every kind, and we have plenty of opportunities to react. But we have a tendency to to misinterpret, screw things up, and otherwise come up with a completely inappropriate response – the key ingredients of generations of global suffering. Feature-length movies have been based on basic breakdowns in communication, as have countless broken marriages and armed conflicts on the world stage. Without a steady stream of catastrophic failures from inappropriate responses to misinterpreted meaning, the world would be a very different place, indeed. And we probably wouldn’t have the Darwin Awards.

Another more abstract separation also plays a role in this mix

Another more abstract separation also plays a role in this mix, but it’s just as real as Temporal and Physical distance.

The term “Conceptual Distance” means different things to different people, depending whether they’re game designers, artificial intelligence researchers, psychologists, or linguists. For the purposes of this discussion, Conceptual Distance is a “comprehension gap” between when our conception (a coherent, interconnected group of ideas) of something isn’t well-defined… and when that same set of ideas has developed enough to make sense and have meaning.

A basic example is when you make sense of a collection of dots that at first look like a jumble. Your understanding of exactly what you’re looking at is “a ways off”.

At first, the dots may or may not make sense to you, but as you start to connect them, a shape begins to emerge. You’re filling in the blanks, in the drawing and in your mind. You’re closing the conceptual distance.

If you keep going and continue to connect the dots in a certain way, you can end up with a useful representation of what you’ve been looking at all along. In this case, a house:

Of course, you can always “fill in the blanks” in other ways, perhaps not bothering to use all the dots and coming up with a sort of bird or airplane:

But you’ve drawn your conclusions (in this case, literally) about what something means. Whether the end result is intelligible or attractive to others is beside the point. You’ve closed the conceptual distance and gotten from a “place of not-knowing” to a “place of knowing”.

Thinking about this figuring-out process in terms of distance is so common, we take it for granted. But our language shows how we really think about it. When you guess wrong about the weather, you say you’re “way off”. While weighing the pros and cons of accepting a job offer, you may be “a ways away” from deciding what to do.

A Sense Of Separation Is So Woven Into Our World View, We Often Don’t Even Realize It’s There

A sense of separation is so woven into our world view, we often don’t even realize it’s there. But it’s everywhere. And it’s palpable. We talk about being “far from satisfied” when things are not to our liking, as though satisfaction were a destination to which we’re traveling. You interact with your new neighbors, and when they don’t seem to warm up to you, they feel “distant” – even though they’re standing with arm’s reach. And when someone has practiced a skill for years, amassing enough experience to finally charge top dollar for their talents and enjoy the fruits of their success, we say they’ve “arrived”. Arrived where? At the imagined end of a long and winding path to achievement.

We experience separation in so many aspects of our lives, and Temporal Distance is one of the most prevalent. Our internal systems need time to do all their sensory transmission and processing. Whether an electrical impulse is shooting down a nerve, or a neurotransmitter needs a split-second to leap the gap of a synaptic cleft, everything takes time to get where it’s going. We may not consciously detect that temporal separation, but it’s there. No matter how fast the sensory transmission and decoding process may be – instantaneous to the unaided human senses – it’s impossible for it to complete in no time at all. Even the tiniest amount of time – say, one-one-millionth of a second – is something. And when that happens trillions of times, it all adds up.

Of course, not all delays we experience are completely hidden from view. You’ve probably experienced sensory processing time lag, when your body’s reflexes took a while to react to something you saw coming. As though in slow motion, you watch a carton full of plastic food containers spill from your arms, but you don’t react quickly enough to stop them. Sitting in your doctor’s office, as the little reflex testing hammer strikes your knee, it takes a small (but noticeable) amount of time for your leg to kick forward. And those times when you’ve touched something hot enough to burn your skin? If your body were capable of sensing and reacting instantaneously to the heat, you’d never get burned, because you’d pull away before the heat had time to damage your skin. But the heat does damage your skin. You do get burned. No matter how fast your reaction may be, it’s still part of a process which takes time. The sensations still have to travel from the surface of your skin to your brain, which makes sense of it, decides what to do, and shoots a response back to trigger a reaction at the point of sense origin.

In the larger outside world, we experience plenty of temporal gaps on a regular basis. You have physical distances to cross when walking across your kitchen or going to the park, and that takes time. You have processes to go through as you prepare for your picnic, and that takes more time. You can’t just wish a birthday cake into being; you have to bake it yourself or buy it at the grocery store. You can’t just decide you’re going to the park on a beautiful day, and magically materialize there. You have to go through the steps of packing for your outing, making sandwiches and loading the car, and forwarding your calls to voicemail. You have to drive the distance, for however long it takes. And when you arrive, you have to spend yet more time finding a parking space, getting all your picnic gear out of the car, locating a suitable dry spot to get comfortable… basically traversing a fair amount of temporal distance to get to your desired “destination”: relaxing comfortably beside your beloved on a lovely spring day.

Time, Understanding, Reaction – Our Other Dimensions of Distance

Time, Understanding, Reaction – Our Other Dimensions of Distance

We’ve talked about physical separation at length, but this is really just scratching the surface of our complicated relationship with distance. There are several other types of separation we regularly negotiate, as well. We also deal with gaps of time, meaning and action. In terms of Time, we are constantly distinguishing between “now” and “later”. In terms of Meaning, we’re always in a process of going from “not knowing” to “knowing”. And when it comes to Action, we always experience lags between when we first encounter something – an idea, a person, an object – and when we respond to it.

These three kinds of distance are so much a part of our lives, we really do take them for granted. Although they’re not physical separations, we still think of them in terms of distance. We may not be literally separated from them, but that’s the sense we get. Here are three

When we know we’re going to be working on something for a while, we say we’re “nowhere near” being done with the job. Six weeks before the official end of winter, we think about spring being “a long way off”. Those are examples of “Temporal (Time-related) Distance”.

When we’re figuring out what to do, we talk about “approaching” a decision. And we talk about estimates being “not even close” to correct. Those are types of “Conceptual Distance”.

We are keenly aware of “Reactive Distance”, too. When your partner is so absorbed in their own thoughts that they don’t hear you asking them to carry a bunch of boxes into the other room, they’re “a million miles away”. When they start helping but aren’t finishing the job as quickly as you’d like, they tell you, “I’m getting there.” You both get it. Because you’re thinking of the process as a kind of distance to cross.

More Separate Than We Know

MORE SEPARATE THAN WE KNOW

Other Dimensions of Our Distance

Time is the longest distance between two places.

  • Unknown

SO THERE we have it. Within our physical systems, we have built-in distance, unavoidable separation between the world which keeps us from actually contacting anything (or anyone) up-close-and-personal. The length of our neurons – some of them as long as 3 feet – which send electrochemical sensory information from sense origin to brain, and back again, creates a “buffer” between us and our surroundings. And synaptic clefts, numbering in the trillions, create even more separation between ourselves and what we sense. No matter how minuscule those individuals gaps may be, their aggregate distance is still measurable – to the tune of hundreds of millions of miles. And that’s not even counting the round-trip distances that all the biochemical neurotransmitters cover, shuttling between their vesicles of origin, receptors, neighboring astrocytes, and back whence they came.

It all adds up.

But the physical aspects of our innate separation are really just the tip of this metaphorical iceberg. In many other areas of our lives, we are distanced, as well. That can be deliberate, or unintentional. By chance or by design or by force. Whatever the reason, whatever the source, distance is indeed a hallmark of human experience.

We may try to dismiss the idea of widespread separation. We may tell ourselves it doesn’t matter. Yet, it’s so central to who we are and how we function, we don’t even realize the extent to which it permeates our day-to-day lives. Distance is useful. In some situations, it’s even essential. And in fact, we actually create separation, so we can use it in our favor.

Let’s take a closer look at how that happens and what we do with it.

So What?

So What?

Now the point of this discussion is not to definitively express the total distance covered by all that electrochemical activity in our systems in numbers with so many zeros we need scientific notation. I’ve used approximate numbers on purpose. I just want to give you a tangible sense of the actual magnitude of the distance which exists within our nervous systems. Separation is not a figment of our imaginations. Distance is not foreign to us. It’s not a sign of abnormality. On the contrary, it’s all built into our systems at the most fundamental, cellular level.

If you’re put off by this idea, you’re not alone. Camillo Golgi, the Italian Nobel Prize winner for Science in 1906 – who enabled scientists to get a look at actual neurons through his staining technique – flatly denied that neurons could be separate. He insisted that, like the vascular system, nerves were continuously connected in a diffuse network. He shared the Nobel Prize that year with Spanish neuroanatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who along with others insisted (without actually being able to see) that neurons had to be separate.

History (and the electron microscope) eventually proved Ramon y Cajal and other adherents to the “neuron doctrine” correct. But it doesn’t change the fact that for most people (who don’t really know or care about neuroanatomy), the idea of all that separation within our systems can be deeply unsettling. Many of us rely on a sense of undifferentiated connectedness to feel secure in our world. We turn to direct contact, immediate perception for our most reliable sense of security. We trust what’s up close and personal, and we shy away from people and ideas that feel foreign. But the simple fact is, our very wiring is full of gaps which guarantee we’ll never directly contact anything. Distance, not undifferentiated contact, is a hallmark of our central nervous system. What do we do, in the face of evidence that says true connectedness can never exist?

I myself would love to believe that Unity is possible. I’d love to be sure that we can all truly connect with others and the world around us. I’m tired of all the separation, the divisiveness, the fragmentation of the world around me. But now it appears that fragmentation is the rule, rather than the exception. If we’re really and truly separate from each other on the microscopic cellular level, how can we ever hope to overcome our broader separations that are driving us farther apart, with each passing day? Surely, there must be some truth to the sage declarations that separation is illusion… and that division – Othering – is a product of our politics and choices, not our innate state.

But… science. It’s wrecking everything.

We’ve seen how the measurable separations of those trillions of synaptic clefts rules out direct contact with the world around us. It’s literally never actually possible. As much as we may crave closeness, as much as we may espouse unity and claim that separation is an illusion, we simply cannot argue with the objective fact of the built-in divisions that permeate our physical vehicles in numbers too large for many of us to count. As much as we may want to trust our senses, to rely on them for grounding us in the world… as much as we may believe only our own immediate experience of life… that doesn’t change the fact that the neurological highways that connect us to the world are riddled with gaps that cannot – by definition – be directly connected.

Separation isn’t the illusion. Unity is.