The Elephant and the Hummingbird

[There’s a web-site I was intending to write about tonight, but, despite my poking and prodding at it pathetically all day, it stayed stubbornly down, so that one’ll have to wait for another time. No rush. In its place, here’s a bit of apropros-of-nothing nonsense.]

I used to carry around a factoid in my head that I’d whip out from time to time. I’ve no idea if it’s true or not. The point is that it feels true, it feels right, and if it isn’t true it damn well ought to buck its ideas up and try harder, because we need factually dubious but fascinating concepts to get us through the day. Turn those scepticism dials up to eleven, because here’s the factoid: To an order of magnitude or so, the number of heartbeats in the normal lifespan of every animal species is the same. African elephant. Bee hummingbird. Same number of heartbeats.

The point that I always liked to leap to from the shaky foundation this factoid provides is this one: No matter how long the temporal life of an animal, the number of heartbeats — representing in some way the clock whose fastest-moving hand splits the life of the beast into indivisible packets, like the clock which pulses the CPU of the machine I’m writing this on — carries with it the concept of perceived time, rather than the absolute time that we insist on wanting to believe in. It’s the measurement of the length of a film by the number of frames, rather than by the actual time it would take for the Keystone Cops to bash each other silly. I like this idea, whether it’s true or not. It seems to confer an equality — in this case of time — and therefore of life, that’s all too rare in the ratcheted randomness around us. It’s comforting to think that the fleetingness of the hummingbird’s life needn’t have to be justified by emphasising the beauty and intensity of that life. Why shouldn’t it seem every bit as calm and peaceful and long to the hummingbird as the life of an elephant or a giant tortoise does to us? (Or, indeed, as fraught and short as our own lives often seem.)

Hang on for the key change, because I’ve often wondered if there’s anything to the idea that this sort of equivalence of perceived experience — or, at the very least, a relativity of perceived experience — applies not just to length of life between species, but also intensity of life within a particular species. That particular species being, of course, us. Last week at work I wrote up the case study of a young woman — the fact that she’s profoundly paralysed isn’t really relevant — whose life is a constant search for new experiences and thrills. She skydives and skis and parasails and travels all over the world. Always something new; always something intense. The obvious inference would be that she has a hunger for life, that some spirit inside her pushes her to the new, the different, and the edgy. That her capacity for life is somehow larger than most people’s.

But what if her capacity for life is larger than most people’s in the same way that the elephant’s life is longer than that of most species: that is, in only a superficial and misleading way. What if her perception of intensity is such that all of that thrill-seeking only pushes her to a point that’s equivalent in her perception to that of, say, my grandmother as she sat on the promenade at Scarborough on a nice sunny day-trip with her friends. The elegant claim that I’d love to make, but can’t — but will still describe — is that, like the equivalence of perceived lifespan across species according to heartbeats, there’s an equivalence of perceived intensity of life across all humans, according to — well, some neural analogue of heartbeat, I guess.

Since the elephant’s heart beats so much more slowly, he must have a longer temporal life to equal in perception the shorter temporal life of the hummingbird, driven by its tiny but manic heart. In a loosely analogous way, perhaps the thrill-seeker — the skydiver, the bungee jumper — must do these things to attain the perceived intensity of life that’s satisfying to them — to any human — precisely because without actively seeking thrills life to them seems flat and tedious. Perhaps they seek thrills because life is less intense by some sort of default. And, in contrast, perhaps there are those for whom by-default life is so intense already that they must calm it down to attain the perceived intensity of life that’s satisfying to them. To them, life would be a matter not of thrill seeking, but thrill avoidance. The easy, false interpretation of the choices they make would be that they don’t enjoy intense experience. And to a degree that would be true, but only because life provides so much intensity in small, everyday ways that jumping off bridges just isn’t really an option.

I’m heading toward the story of Andrew Veal today, which, if the stories in the papers are to be believed, is heartbreaking. There’s one quote from his lab supervisor that captures exactly what I’m getting at here:

Mauney said that other than the war and the election, she didn’t know what might have been troubling Veal.

“I told his mother there are some people so sensitive and intelligent and passionate they don’t belong in the world the way it is today,” she said.

Veal didn’t jump off a bridge because he wanted an intense life. It seems that maybe his life was too intense to deal with as it was, so he climbed over the fence at Ground Zero and blew his brains out.

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