What it’s like to live only in the now


As a neu­roanatomist at Har­vard, I stud­ied how our brain cre­ates our per­cep­tion of re­al­ity. And then one morn­ing, I woke up with a sharp pain di­rectly be­hind my left eye. In the course of four hours, I lost the abil­ity to walk, talk, read, write, or re­call any of my life. I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a ma­jor hem­or­rhage, bleed­ing in the left half of my brain, which ren­dered me an in­fant in a woman’s body.

The per­cep­tion of time is, of course, con­trolled by cells in­side our brains. Cells in the left hemi­sphere al­low us to think lin­early, to rec­og­nize that things hap­pen in a cer­tain or­der. My stroke com­pletely shut down those cells, leav­ing me de­pen­dent on my right hemi­sphere, which doesn’t reg­is­ter any­thing be­yond the present. I had no per­cep­tion of the past or fu­ture. What I was see­ing and smelling and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing at that in­stant was my en­tire ex­is­tence.

It’s hard to put that feel­ing into words, but con­sider this sit­u­a­tion: Your clothes are in a pile. You use your lin­ear brain—the left half—to fig­ure out what goes on first and what goes on last. You’re go­ing to put on your un­der­wear be­fore you put on your pants. With­out that sense of lin­ear­ity, all you have are the in­di­vid­ual pieces. It’s hard to re­late to peo­ple when you think that way; it’s not good when a sto­ry­teller tells you the punch­line be­fore the joke.

A cou­ple of weeks af­ter the hem­or­rhage, sur­geons pulled a golf-ball-size blood clot out of my left cere­bral cor­tex. I im­me­di­ately felt brighter and more present— even with a hole in my head. Brain cells, and a lot of my mem­o­ries, started to come back on­line. I be­gan to re­learn skills. And I learned to work with time: I had a watch, and I un­der­stood the con­cept. But my ex­pe­ri­ence re­mained very much in the present mo­ment for a good six years. You could teach me how to put my socks and shoes on, yes. But if you put them down in front of me, I wouldn’t know which to put on first.

Even­tu­ally, time came back. Some abil­i­ties I had to learn all over again, and some just re­turned on their own. I re­mem­ber some things I for­got, but I have no clue what parts of my­self I’ve lost for­ever. I still can’t re­mem­ber, say, what my 10th birth­day cake looked like. Can you?

as told to So­phie Bush­wick / il­lus­tra­tion by Jungyeon Roh

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