The Material World, Temporal Distance – Time Lags – Can Put Our Perception Out Of Sync With Reality

In addition to the material world, temporal distance – time lags – can put our perception out of sync with reality. Remember, it takes time, even just a split second, for data to reach our brain, where it’s decoded, and then gets interpreted… so it can translate into a shudder or a jump. No matter how immediate our reaction is, it will always be a little out of sync with the initial sensation. It may feel like it’s instantaneous, but that’s physically impossible. It takes time to cover distance – even 20 nm – and that’s exactly what sensory input needs to do, myriad times a day. And in the short time it takes to react to input, the source of the input, itself, may have changed.

While unloading the moving truck, you don’t have a lot of time to talk to your new neighbors. Snow is starting to fall, and you’re losing light. Your new neighbor says something to you while you’re focused on picking up a box, and by the time you can respond to them, you’ve already started to forget what they said to you. You’ve lost your train of thought in the briefest of moments, and your neighbor may have interpreted your delay as lack of interest, even coldness. You don’t have time to explain exactly why you and your partner don’t have any kids. You don’t have the time to apologize for your brusque reply. Your neighbor may in fact be slightly less receptive to you than when they struck up the conversation. But the time to reply adequately is gone, and so is the chance to establish rapport a little more easily.

Temporal constraints are very real factors in information loss. Even if feels like it’s all happening at once, our responses never happen at exactly the same time as the messages we get from the world around us. Even if we’re talking about one one-millionth of a second, there is still a difference in time between what we sense, what we register, and how we interpret it. Just as data is lost as neuronal signals travel across sequential synaptic clefts, so is information lost in the successive temporal gaps of our interaction with the world around us.

And that time constraint, which limits our back-and-forth, also leads to conceptual distance – meaning lags – in the “data transfer” of our communications. Even if we want to, our conditioning and state of mind can thwart our best attempts to understand what someone is saying. You’re feeling rushed while you’re talking, and that makes you uncomfortable, so you’re brusque with your new neighbors. The new people in your life don’t know you, and they don’t understand your situation, so they draw the conclusion that you’re being short with them because you’re rude – not because you want to be polite, but don’t have the time to do so.

You may not understand what they’re saying, either, because you’re distracted and aren’t following the conversation very closely. And they don’t understand you because they’re unfamiliar with your living situation. And so everyone jumps to conclusions that separates them from each other – largely because they don’t realize just how much information they are missing. People make up their minds and decide what they think, based on partial information… and that rarely serves anyone.

Data Loss Doesn’t Only Happen At The Cellular Level

Data loss doesn’t only happen at the cellular level. The way we live our lives, and the way we engage with our world, can also contribute to us losing important information along the way. You may not be paying attention, so important details are overlooked. You aren’t keeping a close eye on those clouds in the sky, so you end up getting drenched. Or something else may be drowning out the messages, preventing you from picking up what’s coming across. While simultaneously unloading the moving truck and talking to a neighbor, you may not pick up everything they say. Your brusque reply about whether or not you have kids can be off-putting to our new neighbors, who don’t know you want kids, but haven’t been able to start a family. They may become defensive and jump to the conclusion that you don’t like kids at all. The actual content of your response is altered by their expectation. The information got lost in gaps of unfamiliarity – a kind of conceptual distance we experience all the time.

Any number of things can cloud our perceptions and make it difficult to pick up everything going on around us – medication side-effects, fatigue, or a fight-flight state of mind. We can’t control every single aspect of our lives or cut down on the signals/noise around us – all of which are competing with each other amid limited sensory processing resources. No matter how we try, sights, sounds, sensations, feelings – all the inputs from inside and out – are demanding our unconscious attention. There are plenty of ways that we can miss details that could provide a clearer picture of the world around us.

And then there’s the factor of data loss across literal external distance – not picking up all the details of the world around us, because we’re separated from what we’re observing by physical space. Just as our physical systems don’t receive every single neurotransmitter that’s released, our senses actually can’t gather every single bit of the sensory data in the world around us. Are there 38 sheep on that hillside, or are there 32? Are they all plump because they’re about to lamb… or are they just really well-fed, healthy sheep that need to be shorn? Are those clouds white or gray? Are they storm clouds for sure, or do they just resemble them? And what about that breeze? Does it smell like rain?

We’re at a distance from the data we need, and as a result, we can lose important details we need to act appropriately. It doesn’t matter much, we think, if we mis-count those sheep, but guess what – if the ewes are about to lamb, that means you can expect at least two weeks of round-the-clock BAAAAAAAAAAAAAing which drives you to distraction. And yes, those are rain clouds. The breeze does smell of an oncoming storm. Not only would it be a good idea to pack up the picnic and head for home, but you should also mentally prepare yourself to be woken up at all hours of the night for the next couple of weeks by the lambing ewes. Maybe now is a good time to go on that extended family visit, far from home… or maybe take that springtime vacation you’ve been wanting.

Neurochemicals In The Receiving End May Change The effect, When They Get There

And even if those little packets of data do make it to the waiting dendrite, the precise information they’re carrying may get distorted. Neurochemicals on the receiving end may change the effect, when they get there. Biochemical variations, based on both biochemistry and past experience, kick off reactions that can be totally different, from person to person, scenario to scenario, interpretation to interpretation. A teenage girl who spent her first twelve years in a war zone may leap out of her chair and dive under her desk at the “thunderclap” sound of a textbook falling flat on a classroom floor. Her entire body may fire off a PTSD panic response, her heart pounding, her mouth dry, and with every nerve feeling like it’s on jagged edge… while her bored classmates who grew up in a sheltered corner of the world may barely notice the “Bang!” as they doodle in the margins of their notebooks and trade notes behind the teacher’s back. The original sensory input was identical, but the end result was very different. The time, space, and processes between the clap of the book and the reaction of listeners created a completely different experience.

Was one experience more valid than the other? Nope. It was all completely logical and reasonable, given the individual circumstances. The autonomic nervous system will do what it will without our say-so. That’s its job. Of course, the classmates rolling their eyes at the terrified girl probably have no idea, because their internal processes are as invisible (and normal) to them, as the war zone survivor’s are to her.

It’s not just external situations that can prime us differently. Our unique individual biochemistry can produce extreme variations, as well. Some individuals are more sensitive to pain, while others are less. Some are fine with extreme cold and heat, while others can’t tolerate any variations. You may have an intensely painful reaction to bumping into a door frame as you carry a box inside your new home, or you may barely notice it and not even realize why you have a bruise the next day. Arguing can be exciting for some people, who relish the feel of adrenaline and love to jump into a fight… while others dread the feel of all that energy and run from even the hint of conflict. An abundance of testosterone can produce certain patterns of behavior, while estrogen, progesterone, and oxytocin can produce very different behaviors – under identical circumstances.

The “payload” of all that sensory information is continuously changed in subtle and obvious ways, as it makes its way along our interconnected neuronal connections. Each jump across a synaptic cleft alters the data ever so slightly… but that happens more times than you and I can count by ourselves. It adds up. Each reception of the data, interpretation of it, and relay to the next step in the perceiving process introduces additional variations on the original theme. The tiny packets of sensory information – which may prompt you to yell “Ow!” and stop to rub your shoulder, or disguise what happened so you can keep going back to the truck for another box – can be slightly different than they were, when they first came across that synaptic cleft.

That whole transmission process, involving thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of synaptic connections, happens countless times, each and every moment of our lives. It’s an intricately networked interaction of of neurochemical richness that sustains constant contact between the world outside and all our interconnected pieces inside. And every single connection that happens involves at least some small portion of data loss – neurotransmitter loss – sensory information getting dropped between sensation and perception, not because there’s necessarily anything wrong, but because that’s just how we work.

In some ways, it’s really for the best that data gets lost en route to our brains. We are continuously inundated by sensory inputs, many of which we don’t need to make sense of. To get through life, you really don’t need all the details about how bright the sun is and the variations on its glare when it reflects off the windshields of passing cars… the feel of a breeze stirring the hairs on the back of your neck… the sound of every single cicada buzzing in the trees outside your home at 10:00 p.m. Hypersensitive individuals report how disruptive a steady stream of sensory data can be. It disrupts concentration with an intermittent flurry of unrelated details about what’s going on in the immediate environment and interrupts thought processes to the point of making simple communication next to impossible, thanks to a steady stream of “noise”.

What would happen, if we picked up on every single sensory input that comes our way? Sights, sounds, scents, touches, tastes would crowd out any chance of concentration. And the additional senses mentioned above – where our bodies are in space, whether we’re balanced or not, the levels of gasses in our bloodstream, our body temperature, various pains and discomforts that don’t normally register – would reduce our available processing resources even more. Our very brains seem designed to cull all that input via a process called “synaptic pruning”.

Beginning in the earliest embryonic stage and lasting until approximately 2 years of age, new neurons and synapses are formed at an amazing rate, at times reaching 40,000 new synapses formed per second. By the end of this process individuals are left with far more neurons and synapses than are functionally needed and/or preferred. Synaptic pruning is the process by which these extra synapses are eliminated thereby increasing the efficiency of the neural network. The entire process continues up until approximately 10 years of age by which time nearly 50% of the synapses present at 2 years of age have been eliminated. The pattern and timeline pruning follows varies based on brain region. Again the process is intended to increase the efficiency of the neurological system.

If we didn’t prune all those extra synapses, would we even be able to function over the long term? It seems like an awful lot of data to take in and process.

Filling In The Blanks

FILLING IN THE BLANKS

Of Data Loss and Instinctive Invention

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

  • Mark Twain, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

SO, THE good news is, despite the decidedly separate nature of our makeup, our systems are constantly kicking off processes to cross the gaps, converting electricity to neurotransmitters and sending them into the void, allowing our senses to perceive and our actions to respond. Whether we’re consciously aware or not, we are in constant entangled interaction with the world around us, always detecting information, always decoding it, always deciding what to do with it, on a physical and subconscious level.

Electricity spikes. Ions start to move. Gates open. Chemicals pour into spaces and act on other chemicals. Electricity builds up again and then travels on. Information makes its way from the tips of our toes to the base of our brains, from all our senses to our central nervous system, and then our brains and minds decide what to do with it. Even when we don’t overtly act on incoming information, we still respond to it in some way, though we can’t detect because it’s so subtle, so automatic. And this happens countless times each moment we’re alive.

It happens on a massive scale across trillions of interconnected junctions, yet it’s such a fundamental part of who and what we are, we don’t even need to think about it. Our bodies figure out for themselves whether our hearts should beat faster, when we can slow down our breathing, or if we should pull away from a sudden sharp pain. Countless snap decisions get made based on input we can’t even consciously detect, as do myriad intentional choices. Even though our “wiring” is riddled with infinitesimal gaps, we’re continuously closing the distance between ourselves and the world around us in order to get closer contact.

It’s not a simple matter of information making the trip, however. As mentioned earlier, despite the veritable flood of sensory data we take in, not all of it gets where it’s going. Electrical impulses degrade along unmyelinated sections of nerve. Neurotransmitters get lost as they diffuse across the synaptic cleft. Or they get sucked back into the bouton where they originated. They can get consumed by nearby glial cells or transformed by interactions with other chemicals in the space between axon and dendrite. Or they can fail to match up to the receptors waiting for them. Maybe the receptors don’t open. Or maybe the neurochemicals just miss the mark and bounce off the fatty wall of the post-synaptic dendrite. Bottom line, they don’t always survive the journey.

From Unconscious Distance To Deliberate Becoming

From Unconscious Distance to Deliberate Becoming

By now it should be pretty clear that separation isn’t just a neurological phenomenon, but permeates the whole of our human experience, both internally and externally in essential ways. Separation isn’t something to hate and fear. Far from it. In many instances, we relish it – and we relish the journey across the divide between here and there, between now and later, between cluelessness and comprehension. The processes which our bodies follow to jump their myriad gaps and interact successfully with the sea of sensory information around us, correspond with the external activities of our customary lives.

We see examples of this all the time. As we go through life, we sense objects of our affection and desire – possessions, people, positions in the world. We see a car we’ve always wanted, a vacation destination, an outfit or device. We don’t have the time or money in our bank account to pay for it all right now, so we kick off a process to move in that direction. We start to save. We start to plan. We go to our bank to see if they will lend us the money. We talk to our boss to request the time off for vacation. Just as electrical signals reaching synaptic clefts without gap junctions cannot cross them, we are continuously coming up against the fact of our separation from where we’re going, what we want, what’s next. And just like our internal neurology, we kick into action a connecting process which lets us cross the distance between ourselves and the object(s) of our desire.

The distance between us and our goals can be physical – An outfit is hanging on a clothes rack across the store from where you’re standing. It can be temporal – It’s still winter, and you have to wait till spring to go on vacation. It can be conceptual, where you know you want to go on vacation, but you haven’t decided which package to book. Simply desiring something doesn’t translate directly into getting it; we have to go through a whole process to make it all happen. Just as sensory signals don’t just arrive at their destination without going through electrical and chemical changes, our desires don’t immediately materialize without some changes on our side. We have to physically move our body across the distance in the store to get the outfit. We have to put in the time at work to accrue vacation time and wait for spring to arrive, before we can even think of taking time off. And we have to find the right information to figure out whether to stay at a resort or go on a cruise.

Of course, distance can be a problem. Nobody likes to be kept away from things, places, and people they love. Think about how it feels to approach members of your family who are talking with each other and don’t notice you. They may look up and see you and bring you into the conversation, but that minute or so before they included you is uncomfortable. Vulnerable.

Distance may thwart us, yes. But it can also invigorate us. It can motivate us, kick us into gear, wake us out of somnolent inertia to take action. Driving towards a goal, then having an obstacle stand in your way can get you more involved in the process of moving forward. It kicks off an extended process of searching for more signals, gathering more information, and figuring out what to do with it. Just as the electrical signals trigger the release of chemicals that leap into the gaps between axons and dendrites countless times in each moment of our lives, we too have processes we can follow to span the physical, temporal, and conceptual distances that keep us from our intended goals. While separation may make us feel alienated, when we engage with it, it makes our experience into more than base existence.

It all has its place. Separation. Distance. Other-ness. They’re all part of our cellular lives, as well as our gross material and social worlds. Negating distance doesn’t do us any good. Ignoring separation and pretending its absence would make everything better is logically and practically impossible. It’s also undesirable. For without the element of distance, we’d never have the opportunity to creatively connect. Our systems wouldn’t have the need or the opportunity to convert electricity to neurochemicals which add to the richness of our lives. And our human activities would be more active than human. Rather than demonizing separation when it arises, we can choose to accept and embrace it as a valuable, essential component of a total vibrant, dynamic system that lies at the heart of who we are and how we are in the world.

The Distance That Exists Between Us And Others Is Something That We Both Love And Hate

The distance that exists between us and others is something that we both love and hate. And that dual love-hate condition marshals our senses, our energy, and our resources like nothing else. Distance and separation actually animate us in ways that few other things can – to the point where those who aren’t invigorated by the idea of meeting new people and jumping into new situations are seen as pathologically avoidant and oppositional.

You can’t just keep to yourself. You can’t just stay at a distance. You have to connect. Or something is clearly wrong.

On the other hand, we still love to cross other types of conceptual distance

On the other hand, we still love to cross other types of conceptual distance, and we love to take our time doing it. Some of our favorite classic movies are suspense, too. Even though we already know how the story ends, we still enjoy the journeys of “North by Northwest”, “Vertigo”, and other films that take us across the conceptual distance from who-dunnit to they-dunnit with an engaging, well-told story. We delight in romance, mysteries, suspense – all of which organize themselves around conceptual journeys from not-knowing to knowing, from not-having to having. According to Publisher’s Weekly, romance, suspense/thrillers, and mystery/detective titles sold more than 62 million units in 2015. That’s a lot of people making the trip from not-knowing to knowing. The internet was supposed to kill publishing in the 1990s, but in fact it exploded the availability of books. It’s become abundantly clear that even the most speed-loving people will still pay good money for a print book that gives them a space in which to immerse themselves in a conceptual journey. From the opening scene, to the resolution of the plot (or even just conclusion without a resolution), we love our books and their stories, and we trust that the author will “get us there” with satisfaction. Like teeny-tiny neurotransmitters spewing into synaptic clefts many times their own size, we gladly set off on our journey into the conceptual unknown, however long it takes.

Additionally, research, facts and figures, and “how-to”s are great examples of conceptual bridges. If there were no conceptual distance – i.e., if we already knew everything that we need to know, the minute we encountered it – there would be no explosion of research, statistics, how-to wikis, and the countless analysts and explainers of print and broadcast media who build their careers out of purportedly helping us to get from the state of not comprehending to feeling like we do understand. Even when they’re wrong / mistaken / deceiving us, we still enjoy the conceptual journey that leaves us feeling like we’ve “gotten somewhere” in terms of being more aware and engaged with our world.

Sports, in particular, are a sort of time-consuming conceptual journey that’s as popular as ever. At the start of the game you don’t know who is the better team. You can certainly argue about their strengths and weaknesses, but until the game plays out, you won’t know for sure who’s the better team that day. No matter how you try to hurry it up, you’re never going to get a professional football or basketball game to last less than the time it’s officially allotted. The game may be called on account of weather, earthquake, or some other extreme circumstances, but regulation play lasts a minimum amount of time. Same with baseball – it will take as long as it takes to get through nine innings, and in some cases (Red Sox and Yankees games come to mind – umpires have actually had to tell the teams to speed up their play), it can take much longer. But fans will sit through the extended contest, to find out how the journey ends. We may not be happy about losing sleep on a Sunday night, but we’ll do it – even if it means misery on Monday morning. Win or lose, we still got to participate in the group journey from not-knowing to knowing about the outcome. We joined in something bigger than us, a ritual shared by tens of thousands, maybe millions. For those who value that, any time spent on sports is an investment, not a waste.

Outcome predictions are a great example of how we add distance to our games. Think of all the time and money spent gambling, all the contests people love to enter, and especially those election cycles which drag on for years on end with endless commentary and poll results. We create conditions in our minds which we realistically have no way of proving in that very moment – there’s a time-frame and a series of events that needs to play out, in order to prove ourselves right or wrong. All of the predictions and guesstimates we put out there are creations of our own conceptual distance And while they separate us from our ultimate knowing of the outcome with another piece of not-knowing, they also heighten our investment and engagement in the game experience, as we cross the temporal and conceptual distance with others to find out who’s going to win. We may not be fond of separation, but it prompts us to action. Crossing conceptual gaps builds us out. It fleshes out our lived experience. And it gives us a greater sense of being involved in our world.

We can spend quite a bit of our free time crossing conceptual gaps for fun. We love the stimulation of puzzles and games, with Sudoku being wildly successful as more than just a passing fad. Crossword puzzles are continuously popular, and figure-it-out games like charades, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, and Pictionary remain favorites through the years. Projects and hobbies have an element of distance to them, as well. Refurbishing an old car, building furniture, inventing things, so in clothing, making arts or crafts or scrap-booking, are all great examples of crossing the distance between nothing to something. We have a distant vision in mind of what we want to have happen, and we pursue it with all our might, spending more money and time than our friends and family think is wise. It would have less significance for us if it came easy, and we expend considerable time, energy, and attention on what is essentially an experience in embracing and loving our separation from a distant goal. We love every minute of it. Even if it sometimes feels like it’s driving us to distraction.

Meeting an attractive person for the first time also has an element of conceptual distance. We don’t know that person, we have only just met them, and yet we feel compelled to understand what makes them tick. All interpersonal relationship-building is actual crossing of conceptual distance… closing the “knowing” gap. Getting to know someone, having conversations with them, learning more about them to fill in the details about who they are and what they’re about, all the while figuring out what part they will play in our lives is very important to us. It’s so important that people who don’t converse freely with others and verbalize in the ways that others do can be considered actual threats.

At the same time, the perceived value of temporal distance seems to have eroded a bit in our modern age of ease and convenience

At the same time, the perceived value of temporal distance seems to have eroded a bit in our modern age of ease and convenience. Over the past 30 years, Quick-And-Easy has become the new Good, and convenience confers more value than something that’s challenging, arduous, and takes a lot of time. Nowadays, we can actually become outraged if we have to wait more than a few seconds for a web page to load, or if we have to stand in line at the grocery store for more than two minutes. In mainstream circles, temporal distance has lost much of the value it once had; time and effort has morphed from perceived investment to bemoaned waste. So much comes so easily to us, so immediately, the slow stuff actually feels less desirable and backward, like a relic of a bygone age of barbaric crudeness. It also pisses us off.

Conceptual distance has taken a bit of a hit, too, in popular culture over the last 30 years or so. The television soundbite has shortened our preferred processing time to the space of seconds rather than the minutes or hours or days or weeks spent by our forebears. The speed with which web pages render, combined with the distractions of “shiny object” ads and links, easily sucks us down an attentional rat-hole of ever-faster clicks and connections. Who wants to sink the time and energy into making sense of complex issues, when you can read a quick “listicle” giving you 10 things you should / should not know about such-and-such an issue, along with five reasons you should care?

We grow impatient with concepts that have to be explored in depth, and we look for quick and easy ways to gain what feels like mastery over complex subject matter. Facebook posts, Tweets, blog posts, Cliff’s Notes, cheat codes, shortcuts, and life hacks are now much more en vogue than sitting down with a 600-page classic tome and working your way through the material over the course of weeks, even months, reading supporting literature and commentary, taking copious notes, and really pondering what is there. We are so inundated with a constant flow of information – much of it impossibly complex – that unless you have a quick way to understand what’s going on, it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed and feel like your life is spinning out of control.

In A Very Real Sense, Dealing With Distance Enlivens Us

In a very real sense, dealing with distance enlivens us. Connecting across divisions brings us to life – not only in the relative sense that it makes us feel more alive than we already are, but also in a very real and absolute sense. Just as light is both particle and wave, our sensory perceiving system is two-fold. Separated is What It Is. Connection is What It Does. And in the midst of disparate parts, we have a dynamic process that overcomes our separations and makes them all about connection. The impulses that traverse our neural pathways are the very stuff of life – and they cannot stop without bringing our entire systems to a screeching halt.

And in the same way that we have a process of physical connection on a moment-by-moment basis, every living instant of our lives, we have corresponding temporal and conceptual connection processes. These occur throughout our entire system, involving body, mind, heart, and spirit. Consider the world’s literature, along with every other sort of culture, whether arts and letters, sport, politics or the everyday business of going about your life and interacting with others. It’s all about negotiating distance. Separation and the tension it produces, as well as all the things we do to deal with that, are every bit as central to our human experience, as the firing of synapses that tell your brain what’s going on in the world.

We often want what we cannot have, or what is just beyond our reach. It piques our interest, it motivates us to do what’s necessary to get that thing/person/situation. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” as longing for loved ones far away makes them seem even more beloved. Our thoughts about them can become more positive and rosier when we imagine them from a distance, than if they’re at our side 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Limited-availability consumer goods and homes in exclusive zip codes command higher prices and confer upon their owners a higher social status, than stuff that just anybody can get. I’ve noticed marked differences in how people treated me in 1993, when I was driving a borrowed Mercedes 500-Class sedan, versus when I was driving my paid-for ’79 Honda Prelude. The change in attitude towards me was palpable, and I felt different, myself.

In the case of temporal distance, looking forward to things sharpens our longing. Being separated from what we want by time – anticipating getting what we don’t yet have – whets our appetite. Many of us feel as though we are always working toward something in the future, saving for a house or a car, working towards an academic degree, or putting in a lot of hard work on the job so that we can advance professionally. But we do it gladly, because in the end, we expect to “arrive”. Having to work at something and wait for it raises its value in our minds. If something doesn’t happen overnight, that makes it more valuable to us – and others. It becomes a worthwhile investment of time and effort in what we are doing, and that investment deepens our relationship to the object of our desire. It involves us in the achievement of it. And it evolves us in the process of drawing nearer our goals.

Memories of distant loved ones and past situations (involving temporal distance) tend to become more fond – and more flattering – more valuable, the longer they’re separated from us. It’s not uncommon for people at a funeral to wax eloquent about the value of someone’s life and how wonderful they were while they were still living, when in fact the person delivering the eulogy had not been in regular contact with that individual for months, even years – and the times that they did spend together were filled with conflict, distance, and a host of other challenges which don’t exactly correlate with their glowing accounts of the deceased.

Although we’ve talked at length about sensory data transmission

Although we’ve talked at length about sensory data transmission, chemical synapses handle much more than messages about what we’re seeing, smelling, touching, or tasting. In fact, they’re involved in just about every physical process that keeps us alive. From muscle movement to organ function to countless other physiological activities we can’t detect without advanced lab equipment, roughly 100 different neurotransmitters are keeping our systems vital and operating (hopefully) normally. The gaps of our synaptic clefts harbor both opportunities and dangers. Whether in the pre-synaptic axon, in the post-synaptic dendrite, or in/around the cleft itself, even a slight variation from the norm can produce serious effects. When your body doesn’t produce enough of the neurotransmitter dopamine, for example, you can develop Parkinson’s Disease, with its slowness, trouble walking, rigidity and shaking, as well as depression, anxiety, and problems with sleep and emotions. Too much of the neurotransmitter serotonin in your system can result in serotonin syndrome, which can be toxic, even fatal. Dilated pupils, tremor, sweating and high body temperature (as high as 106°F), possible seizures and irregular heartbeat are just some of the symptoms associated with a condition directly related to an over-accumulation of just one of the many neurotransmitters in your body. Socrates’ chemical synapses made his death possible, when the poison hemlock he drank blocked the receptors at the neuromuscular junction. His muscles were progressively paralyzed, including his respiratory muscles, which cut off oxygen to his heart and brain.

Of course, when our chemical synapses are releasing and receiving their messages in “normal” ways, we’re not only able to keep functioning, but we’re able to grow and adapt. Our heart beats at a steady rate. Our liver and kidneys clean out waste. Our lungs take in and distribute oxygen. We can think clearly, we can get up and get ready for work, and we can just get on with our lives. Our nervous systems are plastic, or able to change in important ways. We learn. We make connections. And the amounts and types of neurotransmitters our neurons release change in response to external stimuli (such as longer or shorter daylight hours). Everything… just works the way we regularly expect it to. But behind the scenes, at levels so microscopic we couldn’t detect until the past hundred years, an incredibly complex series of intricate communications is firing away, myriad times, each and every minute of our lives. Without the interrelated functions of neurotransmitter release, travel, reception, synthesis, and reuptake (and possibly other interactions we haven’t even discovered yet), none of that would be possible.

What’s more, we wouldn’t have the variety of experiences that come from different behaviors of different neurotransmitters. Imagine a world without the appetite and emotional variations of serotonin… the arousal, motivation, and rewards of dopamine… the rush of epinephrine (adrenaline)… or the 100 or so other types of messengers that transmit signals through our systems. Our emotions would likely be very different than what we’re used to – if they’d exist at all. Euphoria, anticipation, stress responses, sadness, depression, anger, pleasure, wouldn’t be anything like they are now, if the neurotransmitters which support to them didn’t need to exist. We also probably wouldn’t have the variety of behaviors that arise from the unique biochemistry of each individual. Passions and motivations might be unrecognizable to us, if they existed at all. The psychoactive drugs we have now would not work – because they act directly on our neurotransmitters. At the same time, we might not even need those drugs, because there’d be no neurochemistry (or a very different kind) at work in our bodies and brains. And without the separation of our synaptic clefts, there’d be no reason for those neurotransmitters to exist.

Who can say how different our experience would be, if our bodies dealt only with electrical signals? Would we “short out” from the unimpeded electrical current? Would things work better? Would they work worse? Would everything go faster, but with less nuance? Would we need more electrical signals to account for variations in quality we’d lose without those chemical connections? Would we even care about the variations? Would we miss all the downsides of neurotransmitters run amok? Or would our lives be so qualitatively different that we’d never even realize we needed those little chemical messengers? It’s impossible to know. At the same time, it’s fair to say the entire experience of life would probably be less varied, less rich, and a lot less interesting in terms of human experience. We might have fewer lows. But then we might also have to sacrifice our highs. Would we want that? The whole point of many popular psychoactive substances, is getting high. And many individuals taking medications which modulate their neurotransmitters discontinue use precisely because they miss the “upsides” of their individual biochemistry. A lot of us don’t want to sacrifice the highs because of the lows, even if it comes at a steep price to ourselves and our friends and family.

Without the separations of synaptic clefts would we have neurotransmitters at all? For that matter, who can say if human life would even be possible, if we had no distance for them to cross? Those packets of chemical goodness aren’t just for entertainment value – they actually keep our intricate systems running – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. All because our systems are innately separate.

Just as synaptic distance is a critical component of our living systems, larger distances we can measure without special equipment serve us well. In fact, we’d lose a real advantage, if our sensory signals didn’t have to travel as far as several feet. Say, you’re warming some milk for a relaxing drink before you go to bed. You reach out to take a pan off the stove, pleased with yourself that you remembered to remove it from the heat before the liquid burned. Suddenly, you realize that the handle is hot, and you quickly set it down on a nearby trivet. If there were no distance between sensory detection and the brain, there’d be less time for you to be pleased with yourself (however briefly), before you realize the handle is hot. After you’ve poured your drink into a mug, you’d also have less time to relish an experience, as it fills your body with a sense of well-being, because an electrical trip from your tongue to cerebral cortex would be nearly instantaneous – and the return trip to the reacting muscles that make you swallow would be just as quick. The end result might be a highly efficient process of drinking warm milk. But could you enjoy it? Without chemical interactions to boost the signal along the way, the end message might be less complete than its chemical equivalent. And without the time delay that literally lets you make sense of the experience, how could you?

Electrical “efficiency” would actually be a profound loss for us as living, breathing, experiencing human beings. To never be able to savor the taste of food, to never be able to enjoy physical contact with another human being, to never have the pleasure of the dawning realization that someone is trying to help – not hurt – us. If there were no physical, temporal, or conceptual separation between “us” and our surroundings, we’d be little more than automatons propelled by base, unthinking reaction. Our humanity needs that distance between when we first engage with something or someone, till when the data reaches our brain for our mind to make sense of it – literally and figuratively. We need that delay to find it meaningful and let it change our lives – for better or for worse.