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The Power Paradox: The Surprising and Sobering Science of How We Gain and Lose Influence

“We rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.”

The Power Paradox: The Surprising and Sobering Science of How We Gain and Lose Influence

“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,” Thoreau wrote as he contemplated how silence ennobles speech. In the century and a half since, we have created a culture that equates loudness with leadership, abrasiveness with authority. We mistake shouting for powerful speech much as we mistake force for power itself. And yet the real measure of power is more in the realm of Thoreau’s “fine things.”

So argues UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner in The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (public library) — the culmination of twenty years of research exploring what power is, what confers it upon an individual, and how it shapes the structure of a collective, a community, and a culture. Drawing on a wealth of social science studies and insights from successful teams ranging from companies like Pixar and Google to restorative justice programs in San Quentin State Prison, he demonstrates “the surprising and lasting influence of soft power (culture, ideas, art, and institutions) as compared to hard power (military might, invasion, and economic sanctions).”

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Keltner writes:

Life is made up of patterns. Patterns of eating, thirst, sleep, and fight-or-flight are crucial to our individual survival; patterns of courtship, sex, attachment, conflict, play, creativity, family life, and collaboration are crucial to our collective survival. Wisdom is our ability to perceive these patterns and to shape them into coherent chapters within the longer narrative of our lives.

Power dynamics, Keltner notes, are among the central patterns that shape our experience of life, from our romantic relationships to the workplace. But at the heart of power is a troubling paradox — a malignant feature of human psychology responsible for John Dalberg-Acton’s oft-cited insight that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Keltner explains the psychological machinery of this malfunction and considers our recourse for resisting its workings:

The power paradox is this: we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst. We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.

How we handle the power paradox guides our personal and work lives and determines, ultimately, how happy we and the people we care about will be. It determines our empathy, generosity, civility, innovation, intellectual rigor, and the collaborative strength of our communities and social networks. Its ripple effects shape the patterns that make up our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces, as well as the broader patterns of social organization that define societies and our current political struggles.


Much of what is most unsettling about human nature — stigma, greed, arrogance, racial and sexual violence, and the nonrandom distribution of depression and bad health to the poor — follows from how we handle the power paradox.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep, an illustrated parable of how power changes us

What causes us to mishandle the power paradox, Keltner argues, is our culture’s traditional understanding of power — a sort of time-capsule that no longer serves us. Predicated on force, ruthlessness, and strategic coercion, it was shaped by Niccolò Machiavelli’s sixteenth-century book The Prince — but it is as antiquated today as the geocentric model of the universe that dominated Machiavelli’s day. What governs the modern world, Keltner demonstrates through two decades of revelatory studies, is a different kind of power — softer, more relational, predicated on reputation rather than force, measured by one’s ability to affect the lives of others positively and shift the course of the world, however slightly, toward the common good. He writes:

Perhaps most critically, thinking of power as coercive force and fraud blinds us to its pervasiveness in our daily lives and the fact that it shapes our every interaction, from those between parents and children to those between work colleagues.


Power defines the waking life of every human being. It is found not only in extraordinary acts but also in quotidian acts, indeed in every interaction and every relationship, be it an attempt to get a two-year-old to eat green vegetables or to inspire a stubborn colleague to do her best work. It lies in providing an opportunity to someone, or asking a friend the right question to stir creative thought, or calming a colleague’s rattled nerves, or directing resources to a young person trying to make it in society. Power dynamics, patterns of mutual influence, define the ongoing interactions between fetus and mother, infant and parent, between romantic partners, childhood friends, teens, people at work, and groups in conflict. Power is the medium through which we relate to one another. Power is about making a difference in the world by influencing others.

In a sentiment that parallels Thoreau’s wisdom on silence and shouting, Keltner adds:

A new wave of thinking about power reveals that it is given to us by others rather than grabbed. We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks.

One key consequence of the fact that power is given to us by others is its reputational nature — an insight both disquieting to the ego and comforting to the soul, for we are inescapably social creatures. Keltner observes:

Our influence, the lasting difference that we make in the world, is ultimately only as good as what others think of us. Having enduring power is a privilege that depends on other people continuing to give it to us.

“Enduring” is an operative word in Keltner’s premise. The “power paradox” is paradoxical precisely because those who manage to wrest power forcibly by the Machiavellian model may have power, or perceived power, for a certain amount of time, but that amount is finite. Its finitude springs from the attrition of the person’s reputation. But the most troubling aspect of the power paradox is that even if a person rises to power by counter-Machiavellian means — kindness, generosity, concern with the common good — power itself will eventually warp her priorities and render her less kind, less generous, less concerned with the common good, which will in turn erode her power as her reputation for these counter-qualities grows.

Keltner cites a number of studies demonstrating these tendencies empirically — poor people give to charity a greater portion of their income than rich people, those in positions of power exhibit more entitled behaviors, people who drive expensive cars are significantly crueler to pedestrians at crosswalks, and so forth.

But in reading these alarmingly consistent studies, I had to wonder about one crucial confound that remains unaddressed: People in positions of power also tend to be busier — that is, they tend to have greater demands on their time. We know from the now-iconic 1970s Good Samaritan study that the single greatest predictor of uncaring, unkind, and uncompassionate behavior, even among people who have devoted their lives to the welfare of others, is a perceived lack of time — a feeling of being rushed. The sense of urgency seems to consume all of our other concerns — it is the razor’s blade that severs our connection to anything outside ourselves, anything beyond the task at hand, and turns our laser-sharp focus of concern onto the the immediacy of the self alone.

Art from Anne Sexton’s little-known children’s book

We know this empirically, and we know its anecdotal truth intimately — I doubt I’m alone in the awareness that despite a deep commitment to kindness, I find myself most likely to, say, be impatient with a fellow cyclist when I feel pressed for time, when I know I’m running late. Even Keltner’s famous and tragicomical study, which found that drivers of expensive cars are most inconsiderate to pedestrians, might suffer from the same confound — those who can afford expensive cars are typically people we would deem “successful,” who also typically have far greater demands on their time. So could it be that a scarcity of time — that inescapable hum of consciousness — rather than an excess of power is the true corrupting agent of the psyche?

And so another paradox lives inside the power paradox — the more powerful a person becomes, the busier and more rushed she is, which cuts her off from the very qualities that define the truly powerful. What would the studies Keltner cites look like if we controlled not only for power, but for time — for the perception of being rushed and demand-strained beyond capacity? (Kierkegaard condemned the corrosive effect of busyness nearly two centuries ago.)

Still, Keltner’s central point — that power in the modern world is “gained and maintained through a focus on others” — remains valid and important. He considers the conscious considerations we can make in order to bypass the perils of the power paradox:

Handling the power paradox depends on finding a balance between the gratification of your own desires and your focus on other people. As the most social of species, we evolved several other-focused, universal social practices that bring out the good in others and that make for strong social collectives. A thoughtful practitioner of these practices will not be misled by the rush of the experience of power down the path of self-gratification and abuse, but will choose instead to enjoy the deeper delights of making a lasting difference in the world. These social practices are fourfold: empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories. All four of these practices dignify and delight others. They constitute the basis of strong, mutually empowered ties. You can lean on them to enhance your power at any moment of the day by stirring others to effective action.

But “power” is one of those words — like “love” and “happiness” — to have become grab-bag terms for a constellation of behaviors, states, emotions, and phenomena. Noting that “a critical task of science is to provide clear nomenclature — precise terms that sharpen our understanding of patterned phenomena in the outside world and inside the mind,” Keltner offers elegant and necessary definitions of the distinct notions comprising the constellation of power in modern society:

POWER your capacity to make a difference in the world by influencing the states of other people.

STATUS the respect that you enjoy from other people in your social network; the esteem they direct to you. Status goes with power often but not always.

CONTROL your capacity to determine the outcomes in your life. You can have complete control over your life — think of the reclusive hermit — but have no power.

SOCIAL CLASS the mixture of family wealth, educational achievement, and occupational prestige that you enjoy; alternatively, the subjective sense you have of where you stand on a class ladder in society, high, middle, or low. Both forms of social class are societal forms of power.

In the remainder of The Power Paradox, Keltner goes on to examine, through a robust body of research bridged with intelligent insight, what we can do both as individuals and as a society to cultivate the qualities that empower us by empowering others and counter those that feed the most selfish and small-spirited tendencies of human nature. Complement it with Blaise Pascal’s timeless 17th-century wisdom on the art of persuasion and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on human dignity and the nuanced relationship between agency and victimhood.

HT Shankar Vedantam / Hidden Brain


Orson Welles Reads Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

“All goes onward and outward … and nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

My recent immersion in James Gleick’s exquisite inquiry into how our fascination with time travel mediates our anxiety about mortality reawakened in my conscience a few lines from Walt Whitman’s 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain). Written when he was only thirty-six and then self-published, it survived a dispiriting initial reception and, thanks to a soul-saving letter of encouragement from Emerson, went on to touch generations. In the century and a half since, it has catalyzed fanciful artistic interpretations and continues to inspire with its largehearted wisdom on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

In 1953, the BBC set out to record an hour of selections from the Whitman classic and approached a somewhat unusual reader: legendary filmmaker, actor, and broadcaster Orson Welles (May 6, 1915–October 10, 1985), thirty-eight at the time and already one of the most recognizable cinematic voices in the world. The recordings were later released on an LP — a Moore’s ghost that has perished into technological obscurity and rendered the readings absent from the common record, now scarcely available as the hard-to-find Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass Read by Orson Welles.

Here is a rare surviving recording of one of Welles’s readings, which gives Whitman’s radiant words a strange and satisfying weight of a different order.

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
    is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
    green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
    may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
    of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
    from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
    for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
    and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
    taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
    at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

Complement the timelessly rewarding Leaves of Grass, the preface of which alone is a masterpiece of the highest caliber, with Whitman on the power of music, healthcare and the human spirit, and the pillars of democracy.

For more electrifying readings of literary classics, hear Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, and Bill T. Jones reading four beloved poets.


James Gleick on How Our Cultural Fascination with Time Travel Illuminates Memory, the Nature of Time, and the Central Mystery of Human Consciousness

“Every moment alters what came before. We reach across layers of time for the memories of our memories.”

James Gleick on How Our Cultural Fascination with Time Travel Illuminates Memory, the Nature of Time, and the Central Mystery of Human Consciousness

“Both in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom,” Bertrand Russell in 1931 as he made his beautiful case for “a largeness of contemplation” in contemplating the nature of time. “Shard by shard we are released from the tyranny of so-called time,” Patti Smith wrote nearly a century later in her magnificent meditation on time and transformation.

As a child in Bulgaria, never having heard of either Russell or Smith, one aspect of time perplexed me to the point of obsession: In my history textbooks, dates relating to significant events or historical figures of Slavic origin were listed in pairs — each had a “new style” date and an “old style” date, always thirteen days apart. So, for instance, Hristo Botev — the great revolutionary who led Bulgaria’s liberation from a five-century Ottoman slavery — was born on January 6 of 1848 according to the new style and on Christmas Day of 1847 according to the old style.

I would later learn that this was the product of the League of Nations, formed after WWI. Its Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, headed by Henri Bergson — the great French philosopher who famously opposed Einstein in a debate that changed our modern conception of time — was tasked with eradicating the Julian calendar that many countries, including Bulgaria and Russia, still used and replacing it with the Gregorian calendar as the new global standard.

This is my earliest memory of confronting the nature of time as both an abstraction humans could make with a committee and a concrete anchor of existence mooring our births, our deaths, and our entire sense of history. But most perplexing of all was the question of what happened to the people who lived through the transition — what happened to the thirteen very real days between the two fictions of the calendars. If reading history wasn’t time-travelish enough, reading about real people forced to time-travel in their real lives by an international decree was both utterly fascinating and utterly confusing. Did the person actually exist between their old-style date of birth and the new-style one — were they alive or not-yet-born? (Even today, the Wikipedia biographies of a Slavic persons from that era list both old-style and new-style dates of birth and death.) The person, of course, most definitely did exist between the day they were born and the day they died, whatever dates posterity — our living present, their unlived future — may impose on those days, now far in the past.

That thirteen-day lacuna between being and non-being was, apparently, the price of globalization. But it was also a suddenly shrill echo of an eternal question: If time bookends our existence, and if it is so easily perturbed by a calendarical convention, is it a mere abstraction?

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time

Time is the two-headed Baskerville hound chasing us as we run for our lives — and from our lives — driven by the twain terrors of tedium and urgency. Toward what, we dare not think. Meanwhile, our information-input timelines are called “feeds.” We feast on time as time feasts on us. Time and information, if they are to be disentwined at all, dictate our lives. Is it any wonder, then, that we would rebel by trying to subjugate them in return, whether by formalizing them with our calendars or by fleeing from them with our time travel fantasies?

How those time travel fantasies originated, what technological and cultural developments fomented this distinctly modern impulse of the collective imagination, and how it illuminates our greatest anxieties is what science historian and writer extraordinaire James Gleick explores in Time Travel: A History (public library) — a grand thought experiment, using physics and philosophy as the active agents, and literature as the catalyst. Embedded in the book is a bibliography for the Babel of time — a most exquisitely annotated compendium of the body of time literature. What emerges is a inquiry, the most elegant since Borges, into why we think about time, why its directionality troubles us so, and what asking these questions at all reveals about the deepest mysteries of human consciousness and about what Gleick so beguilingly calls “the fast-expanding tapestry of interwoven ideas and facts that we call our culture.”

Gleick, who examined the origin of our modern anxiety about time with remarkable prescience nearly two decades ago, traces the invention of the notion of time travel to H.G. Wells’s 1895 masterpiece The Time Machine. Although Wells — like Gleick, like any reputable physicist — knew that time travel was a scientific impossibility, he created an aesthetic of thought which never previously existed and which has since shaped the modern consciousness. Gleick argues that the art this aesthetic produced — an entire canon of time travel literature and film — not only permeated popular culture but even influenced some of the greatest scientific minds of the past century, including Stephen Hawking, who once cleverly hosted a party for time travelers and when no one showed up considered the impossibility of time travel proven, and John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term “black hole” and coined “wormhole,” both key tropes of time travel literature.

Illustration by Matthew Houston for a graphic interpretation of Wells’s The Time Machine

Gleick considers how a scientific impossibility can become such fertile ground for the artistic imagination:

Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast? For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.

Wells’s Time Machine revealed a turning in the road, an alteration in the human relationship with time. New technologies and ideas reinforced one another: the electric telegraph, the steam railroad, the earth science of Lyell and the life science of Darwin, the rise of archeology out of antiquarianism, and the perfection of clocks. When the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, scientists and philosophers were primed to understand time in a new way. And so were we all. Time travel bloomed in the culture, its loops and twists and paradoxes.

Wells imagined time travel in an era where so much of what we take for granted was either a disorienting novelty or yet to be invented — bicycles, elevators, and balloons were new, and even the earliest visions of anything resembling the internet were half a century away. Gleick considers the direction of Wells’s imagination:

The object of Wells’s interest, bordering on obsession, was the future — that shadowy, inaccessible place. “So with a kind of madness growing upon me, I flung myself into futurity,” says the Time Traveller. Most people, Wells wrote — “the predominant type, the type of the majority of living people” — never think about the future. Or, if they do, they regard it “as a sort of blank non-existence upon which the advancing present will presently write events.” … The more modern sort of person — “the creative, organizing, or masterful type” — sees the future as our very reason for being: “Things have been, says the legal mind, and so we are here. The creative mind says we are here because things have yet to be.”

Wells wrote his masterpiece shortly before the rise of relativity remodeled our notions of time. There was Einstein, of course. And Kurt Gödel. And Hermann Minkowski, Einstein’s teacher, whose model used four numbers (x, y, z, and t) to denote a “world point” — what we now call spacetime. Gleick writes of his legacy:

“Mere shadows,” Minkowski said. That was not mere poetry. He meant it almost literally. Our perceived reality is a projection, like the shadows projected by the fire in Plato’s cave. If the world — the absolute world — is a four-dimensional continuum, then all that we perceive at any instant is a slice of the whole. Our sense of time: an illusion. Nothing passes; nothing changes. The universe — the real universe, hidden from our blinkered sight — comprises the totality of these timeless, eternal world lines.

But if we were able to conceive of this timeless totality — to integrate it into our conscious experience — the fantasy of time travel wouldn’t scintillate us so. A centerpiece of our temporal dissonance is one particular phenomenon of consciousness, a very palpable human experience: memory. “Perhaps memory is the time traveler’s subject,” Gleick observes. With an eye to Virginia Woolf’s memorable mediation on memory in Orlando, that supreme masterwork of time travel, he writes:

What is memory, for a time traveler? A conundrum. We say that memory “takes us back.” Virginia Woolf called memory a seamstress “and a capricious one at that.” … “I can’t remember things before they happen,” says Alice, and the Queen retorts, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” Memory both is and is not our past. It is not recorded, as we sometimes imagine; it is made, and continually remade. If the time traveler meets herself, who remembers what, and when?

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

The question of memory, of course, is inseparable from the question of identity, for if we live in “permanent present tense,” we are incapable of stringing together the narrative out of which our sense of self arises. This continuity of selfhood, after all, is what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of physical and psychological change. Time travel presents some serious paradoxes for memory and therefore for the self. “A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote of the genes of the soul, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” If we could travel back to our own past and alter even a tiny speck of the pattern, we’d be changing the entire drum — our identity would have a wholly different sound. Gleick writes:

What is the self? A question for the twentieth century to ponder, from Freud to Hofstadter and Dennett with detours through Lacan, and time travel provides some of the more profound variations on the theme. We have split personalities and alter egos galore. We have learned to doubt whether we are our younger selves, whether we will be the same person when we next look. The literature of time travel … begins to offer a way into questions that might otherwise belong to philosophers. It looks at them viscerally and naïvely — as it were, nakedly.

And so we arrive, at page 99 and no sooner, at the problem of free will. Gleick writes:

Free will cannot be easily dismissed, because we experience it directly. We make choices. No philosopher has yet sat down in a restaurant and told the waiter, “Just bring me whatever the universe has preordained.” Then again, Einstein said that he could “will” himself to light his pipe without feeling particularly free. He liked to quote Schopenhauer… Man can do what he will, but he cannot will what he wills.

The free will problem was a sleeping giant and, without particularly meaning to, Einstein and Minkowski had prodded it awake. How literally were their followers to take the space-time continuum — the “block universe,” fixed for eternity, with our blinkered three-dimensional consciousnesses moving through it?

A century later, the question has hardly budged. And yet we live our lives with such urgency and pointedness of intent — perhaps precisely because we are unwilling to relinquish the illusion of free will. Gleick observes:

Everywhere we look, people are pressing elevator buttons, turning doorknobs, hailing taxicabs, lifting sustenance to their lips, and begging their lovers’ favor. We act as though the future is, if not in our control, not yet settled… We would suffer illusions of free will, because, by happenstance, we tend to know less about the future than about the past.

Happenstance? Memory, self, free will — this Venn diagram of consciousness is indeed encircled by the lines we draw, often artificially, between causality and chance. (“No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone… The accidents happen,” wrote Adrienne Rich.) Gleick writes:

All the paradoxes are time loops. They all force us to think about causality. Can an effect precede its cause? Of course not. Obviously. By definition.


But we’re not very good at understanding causes. The first person on record as trying to analyze cause and effect by power of ratiocination was Aristotle, who created layers of complexity that have caused confusion ever after. He distinguished four distinct types of causes, which can be named (making allowances for the impossibility of transmillennial translation) the efficient, the formal, the material, and the final. Some of these are hard for us to recognize as causes. The efficient cause of a sculpture is the sculptor, but the material cause is the marble. Both are needed before the sculpture can exist. The final cause is the purpose for which it is made — its beauty, let’s say… We do well to remember that nothing, when we look closely, has a single unambiguous incontrovertible cause.

Gleick reality-checks the logicians’ causal models of reality:

If X, then Y means one thing in logic. In the physical world, it means something trickier and always (we should know by now) subject to doubt. In logic, it is rigid. In physics, there is slippage. Chance has a part to play. Accidents can happen. Uncertainty is a principle. The world is more complex than any model.


The physical laws are a construct, a convenience. They are not coextensive with the universe.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince

Mistaking the model for what Virginia Woolf called “the thing itself” seems to be a perennial problem of science, and one particularly integral to the perplexity of time:

William Faulkner said, “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed.” Scientists do that, too, and sometimes they forget they are using artificial means.


You can say the equations of physics make no distinction between past and future, between forward and backward in time. But if you do, you are averting your gaze from the phenomena dearest to our hearts. You leave for another day or another department the puzzles of evolution, memory, consciousness, life itself. Elementary processes may be reversible; complex processes are not. In the world of things, time’s arrow is always flying.

Illustration from a vintage children’s adaptation of Micromégas, Voltaire’s trailblazing scifi homage to Newton

With an eye to Borges’s ideas about time, Gleick returns to the puzzlement of memory, equally not coextensive with the physics of time:

We create memories or our memories create themselves. Consulting a memory converts it into a memory of a memory. The memories of memories, the thoughts of thoughts, blend into one another until we cannot tease them apart. Memory is recursive and self-referential. Mirrors. Mazes.

The formation of memory as a function of consciousness invites the chief religious opposition to science — a theological avoidance of the free will problem, the intellectually fragile contradictions of which Gleick captures elegantly in discussing the ideas in Isaac Asimov’s novel The End of Eternity:

Time is a feature of creation, and the creator remains apart from it, transcendent over it. Does that mean that all our mortal time and history is, for God, a mere instant — complete and entire? For God outside of time, God in eternity, time does not pass; events do not occur step by step; cause and effect are meaningless. He is not one-thing-after-another, but all-at-once. His “now” encompasses all time. Creation is a tapestry, or an Einsteinian block universe. Either way, one might believe that God sees it entire. For Him, the story does not have a beginning, middle, and end.

But if you believe in an interventionist god, what does that leave for him to do? A changeless being is hard for us mortals to imagine. Does he act? Does he even think? Without sequential time, thought — a process — is hard to imagine. Consciousness requires time, it seems. It requires being in time. When we think, we seem to think consecutively, one thought leading to another, in timely fashion, forming memories all the while. A god outside of time would not have memories. Omniscience doesn’t require them.

But whatever pitfalls, paradoxes, and perplexities might bedevil our individual memory, they are rendered into even sharper relief in our collective memory — nowhere more so than in the curious human obsession with time capsules, the grandest of which is the Golden Record that sailed into space aboard the Voyager in 1977, a civilizational labor of love dreamt up and rendered real by Carl Sagan and Annie Druyan that was also the record of their own love story.

The Golden Record
The Golden Record

Gleick considers what this strange millennia-old practice, this “prosthetic memory,” reveals about human nature:

When people make time capsules, they disregard a vital fact of human history. Over the millennia — slowly at first and then with gathering speed — we have evolved a collective methodology for saving information about our lives and times and transmitting that information into the future. We call it, for short, culture.

First came songs, clay pots, drawings on cave walls. Then tablets and scrolls, paintings and books. Knots in alpaca threads, recording Incan calendar data and tax receipts. These are external memory, extensions of our biological selves. Mental prostheses. Then came repositories for the preservation of these items: libraries, monasteries, museums; also theater troupes and orchestras. They may consider their mission to be entertainment or spiritual practice or the celebration of beauty, but meanwhile they transmit our symbolic memory across the generations. We can recognize these institutions of culture as distributed storage and retrieval systems. The machinery is unreliable — disorganized and discontinuous, prone to failures and omissions. They use code. They require deciphering. Then again, whether made of stone, paper, or silicon, the technology of culture has a durability that the biological originals can only dream of. This is how we tell our descendants who we were. By contrast, the recent smattering of time capsules is an oddball sideshow.

Building on the ideas he examined in his indispensable biography of information, Gleick adds:

As for knowledge itself, that is our stock in trade. When the Library of Alexandria burned, it was one of a kind. Now there are hundreds of thousands, and they are crammed to overflowing. We have developed a species memory. We leave our marks everywhere.


When people fill time capsules they are trying to stop the clock — take stock, freeze the now, arrest the incessant head-over-heels stampede into the future. The past appears fixed, but memory, the fact of it, or the process, is always in motion. That applies to our prosthetic global memory as well as the biological version. When the Library of Congress promises to archive every tweet, does it create a Borgesian paradox in real time or a giant burial chamber in progress?

Because time has this unsilenceable undertone reminding us of our morality, we grasp onto it — onto this intangible abstraction — the way we grasp onto material possessions, commodities, and all the other tangibilia by which we sustain our illusions of permanence in a universe dominated by impermanence and constant flux. From this angle, Gleick revisits the tenet that all paradoxes are time-loops:

Once we conceive of time as a quantity, we can store it up, apparently. We save it, spend it, accumulate it, and bank it. We do all this quite obsessively nowadays, but the notion is at least four hundred years old. Francis Bacon, 1612: “To choose Time, is to save Time.” The corollary of saving time is wasting it.


We go back and forth between being time’s master and its victim. Time is ours to use, and then we are at its mercy. I wasted time, and now doth time waste me, says Richard II; For now hath time made me his numbering clock. If you say that an activity wastes time, implying a substance in finite supply, and then you say that it fills time, implying a sort of container, have you contradicted yourself? Are you confused? Are you committing a failure of logic? None of those. On the contrary, you are a clever creature, when it comes to time, and you can keep more than one idea in your head. Language is imperfect; poetry, perfectly imperfect. We can occupy the time and pass the time in the same breath. We can devour time or languish in its slow-chapp’d power.

Still, memory remains. The key to understanding time, Gleick suggests, lies in understanding memory — understanding the dialogue, often dissonant, between the experiencing self and the remembering self. He writes:

The universe does what it does. We perceive change, perceive motion, and try to make sense of the teeming, blooming confusion. The hard problem, in other words, is consciousness. We’re back where we started, with Wells’s Time Traveller, insisting that the only difference between time and space is that “our consciousness moves along it,” just before Einstein and Minkowski said the same. Physicists have developed a love-hate relationship with the problem of the self. On the one hand it’s none of their business — leave it to the (mere) psychologists. On the other hand, trying to extricate the observer — the measurer, the accumulator of information — from the cool description of nature has turned out to be impossible. Our consciousness is not some magical onlooker; it is a part of the universe it tries to contemplate.

The mind is what we experience most immediately and what does the experiencing. It is subject to the arrow of time. It creates memories as it goes. It models the world and continually compares these models with their predecessors. Whatever consciousness will turn out to be, it’s not a moving flashlight illuminating successive slices of the four-dimensional space-time continuum. It is a dynamical system, occurring in time, evolving in time, able to absorb bits of information from the past and process them, and able as well to create anticipation for the future.


What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track.

This act of keeping track, which is largely a matter of telling the present from the past, is what Gleick considers the key question of consciousness and the pillar of our very sense of self:

How do we construct the self? Can there be memory without consciousness? Obviously not. Or obviously. It depends what you mean by memory. A rat learns to run a maze — does it remember the maze? If memory is the perpetuation of information, then the least conscious of organisms possess it. So do computers, whose memory we measure in bytes. So does a gravestone. But if memory is the action of recollection, the act of remembrance, then it implies an ability to hold in the mind two constructs, one representing the present and another representing the past, and to compare them, one against the other. How did we learn to distinguish memory from experience? When something misfires and we experience the present as if it were a memory, we call that déjà vu. Considering déjà vu — an illusion or pathology — we might marvel at the ordinary business of remembering.

This dizzying tour of science, philosophy, and their interaction with literature is leading me to wonder: When a machine hums, does it hear or notice the hum? Could it be that time is the hum of consciousness?


Perhaps time is so troublesome because it foists upon us our perennial fear of missing out. Time travel, Gleick argues, is such an alluring fantasy precisely because it bridges the infinite possibility of life with the realm of the probable — by traveling in time, we get to live the myriad unlived lives which we are doomed to never experience under the physical laws of this one and only life we’ve been allotted. He captures this with uncompromising precision:

If we have only the one universe — if the universe is all there is — then time murders possibility. It erases the lives we might have had.

Time travel, then, is a thought experiment performed in the petri dish of existence itself, catalyzing its most elemental and disquieting questions. In a reframing of the central idea of the Butterfly Effect — a term Gleick himself wrested from the esoteric lexicon of meteorology and embedded in the popular imagination in 1987 with his groundbreaking first book, Chaos, which created an aesthetic for the history of science much like Wells created an aesthetic for time travel literature — he considers the logical loops of changing any one element of history, which ripples across all of being:

We have to ask these questions, don’t we? Is the world we have the only world possible? Could everything have turned out differently? What if you could not only kill Hitler and see what happens, but you could go back again and again, making improvements, tweaking the timeline, like the weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) in one of the greatest of all time-travel movies, reliving Groundhog Day until finally he gets it right.

Is this the best of all possible worlds? If you had a time machine, would you kill Hitler?

And so we arrive at the answer to the central question:

Why do we need time travel? All the answers come down to one. To elude death.

Time is a killer. Everyone knows that. Time will bury us. I wasted time, and now doth time waste me. Time makes dust of all things. Time’s winged chariot isn’t taking us anywhere good.

How aptly named, the time beyond death: the Hereafter.


But even death is strewn with the temporal asymmetry of our anxieties, which Montaigne articulated brilliantly half a millennium ago as he contemplated death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” And yet we do dread death with infinitely greater intensity than we dread, if that’s even the appropriate term, not having lived before our birth. If the arrow of time is one-directional, so is the arrow of time-anxiety. But Gleick subverts Montaigne and delivers a sublime summation of the paradoxical impulse at the heart of our time travel yearnings:

You lived; you will always have lived. Death does not erase your life. It is mere punctuation. If only time could be seen whole, then you could see the past remaining intact, instead of vanishing in the rearview mirror. There is your immortality. Frozen in amber.

For me the price of denying death in this way is denying life.

Barring denial, our only recourse is to surrender our memory, our consciousness, our very selves to the flow of time. To borrow Sarah Manguso’s piercing observation, “time punishes us by taking everything, but it also saves us — by taking everything.” Gleick writes:

When the future vanishes into the past so quickly, what remains is a kind of atemporality, a present tense in which temporal order feels as arbitrary as alphabetical order. We say that the present is real—yet it flows through our fingers like quicksilver.


It might be fair to say that all we perceive is change — that any sense of stasis is a constructed illusion. Every moment alters what came before. We reach across layers of time for the memories of our memories.

Complement Time Travel — the kind of book that lodges itself in the imagination, planting seeds of ideas, insights, and revelations bound to go on blossoming for the remainder of this lifetime — with Bertrand Russell on the nature of time and Virginia Woolf on its astonishing elasticity, then revisit Gleick on the story behind Newton’s famous “standing on the shoulders of giants” metaphor, the source of Richard Feynman’s genius, and the origin of Type A.


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