The First Three Time Zones: Past, Present and Future
Our brain learns from rewards and punishments.
We don't yet fully understand the exact relationship between rewards, punishments and learning processes, but for the purposes of this discussion, those details don't matter.
The brain relates to reward or punishment in the past, the present and, with certain limitations, the future:
- Reward or punishment in the past has already caused learning to occur.
- Reward or punishment in the present is causing learning to occur right now.
- Reward or punishment in the future can cause learning to occur, if the reward or punishment can be anticipated.
A consequence which causes reward or punishment can be anticipated if two conditions are satisfied:
- An estimate can be made of when it will occur
- An estimate can be made of the probability that it will occur, or more precisely, a non-zero lower bound of the probability can be estimated.
The Fourth Time Zone: The Indefinite Hypothetical Future
An future event occurs in the Fourth Time Zone when neither of the conditions required for anticipation hold true.
That is, we cannot say when the event will occur, and we have no reason to believe that the probability of it occurring is greater than zero.
It might seem that such an event cannot have any effect upon the brain's learning processes.
But the human brain does have the ability to consider events which happen at an indefinite time if they happen at all, and which may in fact not happen at all.
Such events are hypothetical.
Reward and punishment cannot be attached to such events.
Music and the Fourth Time Zone
However, although reward and punishment cannot be attached to events that occur in the fourth time zone, that is not the end of the story.
Because there exists a thing called Music.
Music is something that creates a particular altered state of mind in the brain of the listener.
One major effect of this altered state of mind is that it allows emotions to be attached to events occurring in the Fourth Time Zone.
Music also causes a pleasurable reward in itself. This reward is not the reward associated with those events, rather it is a reward generated from the attachment of emotions to those events occurring in the fourth time zone.
What value is derived from being able to attach emotions to hypothetical events occurring in the indefinite future?
It is as if the human mind has a need to discover in advance what emotions it would feel if certain events were to happen, on the off chance that they might happen.
Perhaps, in some situations, time is of the essence – an opportunity might arise, which requires immediate action by the person involved. In this situation, the person benefits from having already fully considered what is their likely emotional response to the consequences of such action, whether those consequences be positive or negative. The action might be something risky, and the person needs to make a quick decision, taking into account both the pros and cons.
There are people who do not respond to music the way most people do, and many of those people live normal successful lives.
It is possible that this function of music exists, but at the same time this is not obvious to us, because our modern life-style does not normally present the kinds of opportunities where this a priori association of emotions to possible consequences is beneficial.
Music may actually be a vestigial function, ie something that used to be much more functional than it currently is.
If this is the case, then how far back in time do we have to go to find a time where these kinds of opportunity were more common-place?
One thing we do know is that fairly major changes in human life-style occurred with the development of agriculture, and with the formation of larger more complex societies.
It is possible that a pre-neolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in a small tribe was, on average, more opportunistic than life in a larger society.
And it may be that this opportunism made it worthwhile to prepare in advance for particular significant opportunities that may have unexpectedly arisen in a person's lifetime.
If indeed music is a vestigial function, then this tells us something about music in the future, which some people might find a bit sad – music as we know it will eventually fade away. Natural selection will act like it always does, and the 4% of people who don't like music will grow to a much large number, like 90%, or maybe 100%.