Metadata and the Mind
Reviewed and updated 3 March 2019
My wife Gaun recently took a photo of us together using her recently purchased phone. This is a little unusual in that although I have lots of photos of Gaun we don’t have a lot of us as a couple as Gaun isn’t big on selfies (thank goodness) and neither am I.
What struck me when I later looked at the photo was that I found that I had no connection with the person sitting next to Gaun and I wanted to give some context to that odd statement for my benefit if no one else’s.
In my logical mind I know that the person on the right is me but beyond that assumption it could equally be someone I have never met before. This is because the image doesn’t produce any corresponding internal surge of personal characteristics, memories or anything at all in fact. It is a totally flat image on a screen and beyond that it has no depth. This happens because the ‘real’ Tony entity looking at that image from this side has no associated response to give life to the photo. Let me try to explain.
If you have ever used photo editing software you will know that every image has built-in information that together with the visual picture makes that photo what it is. This data is usually viewed under a heading such as ‘properties’ or ‘metadata’, and it provides useful information about the basics that sit behind the photo, things like when it was taken, and if you are using a camera phone or modern SLR, the GPS locations, through to more geekier aspects such as the camera settings used, a histogram etc.
So, there are the two integrated aspects to every image – the actual scene, which is the visual output, which gets most of our conscious attention, and then behind that sits all the metadata, which automatically records where on your timeline the photo sits and the technical aspects attached to the very moment you took that image.
If you follow an Indian spiritual path you might be familiar with what I call metadata in this context being referred to as samskaras, which Wikipedia defines as follows:
Samskaras or sanskaras (Sanskrit: संस्कार) are, in Indian philosophy and Indian religions, mental impressions, recollections, or psychological imprints. In Hindu philosophies, samskaras are a basis for the development of karmatheory.
According to various schools of Indian philosophy, every action, intent or preparation by an individual leaves a samskara (impression, impact, imprint) in the deeper structure of the person’s mind. These impressions then await volitional fruition in that individual’s future, in the form of hidden expectations, circumstances or a subconscious sense of self-worth. These Samskaras manifest as tendencies, karmic impulses, subliminal impressions, habitual potencies or innate dispositions. In ancient Indian texts, the theory of Samskara explains how and why human beings remember things, and the effect that memories have on people’s suffering, happiness and contentment.
In a normal self-conscious state, we operate in exactly the same way as a camera taking photos or videos. All of our life images are perceived from a central ‘me’ (camera) point of reference and then stored in memory. Each moment has a set of ‘properties’ attached to it – time, locations, names, emotions and so on. When remembering an event from the past those images are recalled from memory and recreated to overlay the current moment. It’s not just the images that are recalled as they also bring with them all of the associated metadata attached to them, that gives life to that particular memory. Like a photo taken on a camera the image and its properties are a package. One is permanently linked to the other. If you recall a situation that has anger stored as part of the metadata then most likely the same anger will re-emerge in the current moment if that event is recalled, because it is built into the properties of that historical memory.
So, this process involves a two-stage process – two aspects of observation. Firstly, each moment is viewed and captured with all of the associated metadata. Secondly that observation is transferred to our ‘database’ of memories – both the image itself and the metadata that is attached to it. For most people the everyday is placed in a data folder called ‘forget memories’ and will be stored deeper within, often making its recovery impossible. However, the more dramatic moments will be moved to our ‘active memory’ folder and from there we are able to relive both the images and their metadata as required.
So, what would happen if all of the aspects that define a photo, the metadata or properties, were erased? It seems logical to assume that without the properties of a photo then and no image can exist as an energised defined moment on life’s timeline. As Amy wrote in her book:
I noticed more and more now, that all events seemed to disappear from memory into the inner void. Driving away from home and all its small dramas, only the present environment of road and tree lined streets seemed to be, and they in turn disappeared to be replaced with the home of a friend, and the friend herself. All the external pictures of my world seemed to appear momentarily only, and then return to the Emptiness. Memories are lifeless, like the negatives of a black and white film, and the constant pendulum of the mind slows down, the swing from past to future decreases – strange really.
From my experience this is what happens in the stages beyond the self. I find that the built-in memory metadata somehow no longer works and as a result no historical situations are retained in the way we would normally associate them as a function of memory. What we have always unthinkingly assumed as being an essential and self-defining part of our lives fades away and the result is a new way of observing and reacting to the unfolding panorama and events of life.
I have found that this loss of metadata has two main effects. One is that historical memory, the recalled images and situations that make up the past, fades almost completely. In fact, the longer I live in this state the more absolute the erasure of the past, not just long-term images but the immediate past isn’t given any life energy within the current moment. An event happens, it is observed, it passes and then cannot be recalled in any vivid way if at all.
The second effect is that each moment is still observed as a constantly changing series of images; life doesn’t suddenly go blank, but very little additional information is attached to what is observed. This is why I can look at that photo of Gaun and me and although I know that it is a photo of Gaun and Tony and logically I can place it at the Thai family home over the 2018 Christmas period, none of the other properties of emotion or situation are recalled. There is no way I can recreate sufficient metadata to bring that historical point in time to life nor put myself as being there.
I have to say that I find this stage is difficult on some levels and as I keep saying in this book, not one I would choose left to my own devices. For example, Gaun and I were watching the 2018/19 New Year Sydney fireworks and for me all I could see were a panorama of images. I have actually been to Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks having drinks on a boat in the harbour so in a ‘normal’ situation historical memory would bring life and energy to the act of seeing it again, but not so. Because there is no emotion or memory created by the images being displayed, what I end up viewing is a series of scenes without context or connection, and I find it is unable hold my attention.
The same ‘observation only’ state applies to all my life. I see a visual panorama and I can operate effectively within it but none of those images seems to come with any recognised metadata that generates much if any physical or emotional response in the conscious self. This seems to be the natural outcome you are forced to live in the Now, Stage Three as described in this book. It is Mindfulness in its purest form, but rather than bringing with it a more intense emotional connections because of the one-pointedness of each moment, the opposite happens and it brings nothing with it at all. Increased focus only achieves a deeper silence and a state of pure observation.
The saving grace to what must read as a pretty unrewarding stage in life, is the completeness of this transformation. I can write about how life might be like outside of this state but I can’t experience it so it doesn’t register emotionally as something I am missing out on. Having moved beyond that very challenging interim state where the old and new battled for supremacy, the period I called The Transition in this book, no alternative is offered and the absence of emotional responses works in my favour by not overwhelming me with feelings of loss, regret or isolation.