Omni 6(February 1984):38
Note: This web version is derived from an earlier draft of the paper and may possibly differ in some substantial aspects from the final published paper.
“When I wake you, the past will be gone,” Dr. Bernard Aaronson, of the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute, told a deeply hypnotized college student.
When the posthypnotic suggestion took hold, the student became drowsy and infantile, losing both memory and the powers of speech. Later he reported a vague sense of meaninglessness.
The young man without a past was one of ten college students who took part in an unusual experiment with psychological time warp. Aaronson gave some subjects posthypnotic suggestions that eliminated their past, present, or future; he gave others a vastly expanded past, present, or future. The consequences were profound.
With no future, people felt a loss of identity and a euphoric, mystical sensation, free of both anxiety and motivation. One student found himself in a “boundless, immanent present.” Expanding the future, on the other hand, canceled all fear of death and induced serenity, contemplation, and a feeling of self-fulfillment.
Being robbed of a past brought on a semi-infantile, torpid state, and students with a dilated past became egocentric and inhibited.
Canceling the present was the most disturbing, however. One subject turned catatonic; others became severely depressed and almost schizophrenic. Stopping subjective time altogether produced an eerie sensation of death. “The world moves on, but I don’t,” one student observed.
Aaronson's conclusion: Life must carry some sense of direction, from past to present or present to future, to seem worth living. People given a present shorn of a past and future become preoccupied with death and behave like schizophrenics. This finding, together with the high suicide rate among schizophrenics, he notes, “raises the question of whether schizophrenia may not be a psychic analogue to dying.”