20 minutes

von Matthew

There is a finite amount of time that any connection in the human brain can remain active, according to modern-day neural science. Usually this is very short, sometimes under a millisecond – sometimes this can be up to 20 minutes. This in itself may seem like distant, unattached information to most – the stuff to bore first-year medicine students – since its fundamental opposition to the way we have come to explain the world to ourselves is not immediately apparent.

For in essence, this trivial fact puts into question the very notion of solidity and durability of what we have come to think of as “existence”, banishes the idea of unchangeable structure in our lives into myth and makes it almost incredible that such a supposition should even exist. In essence, it means that no state of mind can last for longer than 20 minutes at the very most. After this time, the mind that was, is no more, and a new one has, step by step, synaptic firing by synaptic firing, taken its place. It is, in many ways, a mind reborn.

Many may have seen the signs before. Why can one never hold on to the feeling of supreme happiness? Why does one’s resolve weaken half-way into a task? Why do we doubt at all, why is the decision our past self made no longer the one our present self would make? Why do we tire, lose interest at all?

I do not mean to legitimize the impatience and short-sightedness that is the human condition, I would not dare dream the horror of a world where it is insisted that all perceived “negative” emotion be purged after a short grace period for the mental faculties, a world where a friend, beloved partner, lover can leave your life forever at any time with no other reason than “You had your 20 minutes”, a world in which the past becomes a trivial nothing. Historicity does exist, and we will remember that we do in fact remember, that what has happened only happens once and bears its relevance for all eternity. The nodes do not change at the speed that the network does, we do not lose what we have had before, even though we are different.

The point of interest, however, is this: it is possible to change.

Though a new impulse deep within the cerebral cortex may be sent to make us believe that we are damned to our fates, reactivate the synapses that close our minds for up to another 20 minutes: this is not the case and we are free to ignore the voice that tells us otherwise. We are, in every way, capable of reinventing ourselves – and the world we have created for ourselves -within any given 20 minutes. And if we think about it carefully, we are sure to find that there are times where we have.

And if we gain the sensitivity, the self-awareness, and the imagination to do this not at the end of a chain of reflexes, but of that which we call our will – then how would the light shine! How would we be clearer, and how would so many unnecessary shadows be cast from the world! For we would never need to feel ourselves helpless victim of a perceived weakness, of shyness, of a depression, of social stigma, of sedimented insincerity – if we believe it to be necessary we could change the sea we drown or thrive in.

Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

-William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1610.

Sailors run aground, in a sea change nothing is safe

Drown, drown, sailors run aground
In a sea-change nothing is safe
Strange waves push us every way
In a stolen boat we’ll float away

Little one – just a little way
Today all of the dreams are waking

Little one – hold on
All of the dreams are waking

- Beck, Little One, Album: “Sea change”, 2002.


A terrifying concept worth holding on to. Worth thinking about. Give it 20 minutes.

All pictures copyright 2009 by Matthias Roche – click images to enlarge.

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