The most basic assumption we have about objective reality is our own spatially derived presence, whereby our surroundings provide the context for our own presence.[iv] Neurologists point to the posterior superior parietal lobethe portion of the brain Newberg and D’Aquili have dubbed the orientation association area, or OAA:

“The primary job of the OAA is to orient the individual in physical space-it keeps track of which end is up, helps us judge angles and distances, and allows us to negotiate safely the dangerous physical landscape around us. To perform this crucial function, it must first generate a clear, consistent cognition of the physical limits of the self. In simpler terms, it must draw a sharp distinction between the individual and everything else, to sort out the you from the infinite not-you that makes up the rest of the universe.”[v]

In their best-seller, Why God Won’t Go Away, they suggest that reduced neural activity in the OAA during transcendence indicates a deficit condition resulting from a lack of information processing:

“Would the orientation area interpret its failure to find the borderline between the self and the outside world to mean that such a distinction doesn’t exist? In that case, the brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses. And this perception would feel utterly and unquestionably real.” [vi]

However, by assuming that the spatial limits of the self are the absolute limits of the self, they overlook the key attribute of transcendence, which is the heightened sense of immediacy. They fail to acknowledge that the brain has to first generate a perspective from which to interpret the spatial boundary of the self.[vii]

One’s perspective emerges from optic flow; those movements in the scenery that are attributed to one’s own movement. Newborn babies detect optic flow in a simulated setting, moving their legs[viii] as if they are stepping into the world. So, we obviously have an innate understanding of spatio-temporal relations. In essence, the mind uses these movements for the sake of determining one’s moving perspective. Since the correlation between these movements and one’s own motion is immediate, the relationship between them contributes to one’s sense of immediacy. However, while our perspective resides in the present moment, the interpretation of space suppresses our experience of the present moment by harnessing our perspective to navigate space. The mechanism that renders the world as spatial does so at the expense of our own immediacy.[ix]

We use a variety of cues to perceive depth; motion is only one of many. One of the most powerful cues to depth, especially at short distances, is binocular disparity–the difference in the images received by each eye. We also use accommodation, which concerns the thickening and thinning of the lens of the eye to better focus on near and far objects respectively. And then there are pictorial cues to depth, such as the fact that nearer objects occlude further objects (occlusion), nearer objects are larger than further objects (relative size) and are further from the horizon (relative position).

Although motion is not the only means by which depth is interpreted, it distinguishes itself from all other depth cues by virtue of its temporality. Depth variations revealed by motion are determined across time. The mind determines the shape of an object, or an empty space, based on how its appearance changes over time. These changes in appearance only make sense to the extent that they are relative to the observer’s perspective.[x] So, the process of determining depth through motion effectively harnesses the observer’s perspective, with the result that our sense of immediacy is dulled.

Space seems like a solid foundation for presence, however, it is not as fundamental as it seems. As far as perception is concerned, it is a façade that masks the fluidity of one’s perspective. Paradoxically, this fluidity is more resilient than space, because it is the foundation for spatial perception. Through meditation it is possible to retract one’s awareness from the world, and in so doing dissolve the division between one’s perspective and the object of one’s attention, such that one’s very perspective becomes the object.[xi] Then, one does not see the surroundings so much as the movements in the surroundings that indicate one’s own motion. Subject and object merge and the here-and-now becomes palpable.

The “sharp distinction between the individual and everything else” only applies to our spatial presence. Our immediacy extends beyond this boundary. The so-called inner and outer worlds are intertwined within our consciousness.[xii] One’s perspective emerges from the changing appearance of one’s surroundings and the so-called “outer” reality only gains its spatial character from the projection of one’s own presence. What emerges from this discussion, however, is the distinction between spatial and temporal relations, where space is in fact ‘imagined’ and the nature of transcendence extends beyond our physical boundary.

While it is perfectly sensible to treat the world as objectively present, the spatial paradigm is by definition divisive. By contrast, the temporal paradigm is inclusive. However, the nature of this connection is not to be understood in spatial terms. It sounds absurd to say that: “the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses” without first dissolving the spatial paradigm. It infers that the mind is misinterpreting its relationship to the world. On the contrary, during transcendence, the mind perceives the foundation of its own presence. The extraordinary connection felt during meditation doesn’t just feel real it is real. But it is a connection to the present moment, rather than the physical world as such.

Spatial perception takes shape within the fluid movement of one’s own visual perspective. Just as a wave changes shape as it enters shallow water, vision converges with the visible to render spatial relations. The confluence of movements coalesces to give us the impression of form in our surroundings. Motion determines the observer’s perspective, which detects the spatial relations that situate the observer.[xiii] There are thus two directions of causation: a feed-forward from motion to space and a feedback from space to motion. The observer’s perspective rides the interface between space and motion.

The interface between surfboard and wave exhibits the same dynamic structure as spatial perception. Firstly, the shape of the wave represents optic flow, in the sense that waves respond to the shape of the reef in the same way optic flow responds to the shape of one’s surroundings. Secondly, the penetration of the surfboard corresponds to depth perception, in the sense that the interplay between wave and surfboard is analogous to the interplay between movements that reveal the depth of space to the observer. In effect, the surfboard penetrating the surface of the wave can be likened to spatial features penetrating the apparent motion of optic flow.

By emphasising the temporal component of situated presence, the surfing analogy lays the ontological groundwork for a functional model of the psyche, characterising the spatio-temporal structure of experience as a subliminal template for how we see the world.

Next chapter: Emergence.


[iv] Todes, S. (2001). Body and World. MIT Press, pp.168-9.

“On our phenomenological account, however, the self-activity of the percipient is felt as the self-movement of his substantive. The fields in which this self-movement is directed are therefore felt as the fields of direction of the very body that is self moving.”

[v] Newberg, A.B. & D’Aquili, E.G. (2001). Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books, p.4.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Todes, S. (2001). Body and World. MIT Press, p.175.

“Our general sense of activity is of something-or-other taking place in the field of our experience; and in practical perception, as we have seen, this field is a function of our sense of self-movement.”

[viii] Barbu-Roth, M., Anderson, D., Desprès, A., Provasi, J., Cabrol, D. & Campos, J.J. (2009). Neonatal Stepping in Relation to Terrestrial Optic Flow, Child Development, 80 (1), p.13.

“The apparent ability of the newborn to discriminate an optic flow pattern specifying self-motion from one specifying stasis (the static pattern), or motion of an object in space (the pinwheel), suggests that a capacity for recognition of an implicit ecological self, as opposed to an interpersonal self (Neisser, 1991), is present from birth. In other words, the infant’s behavior is relational; it is directed at a specific environmental demand, and the infant’s behavior is differentiated in accordance with the task demand.”

[ix] Todes, S. (2001). Body and World. MIT Press, p.171.

“In all empirical determination, therefore, we somehow make ourselves passive objects of our own spontaneity.”

“By active self-movement, the percipient first generates his spatiotemporal field. But, as soon as he does so, he is passively thrown into the middle of it as an arena in which he must fend for himself as vulnerable, and seek to find himself, though subject to failure.”

[x] Ibid., p.206.

“We can have an object in perception only by becoming circumstantially self-aware. And we become circumstantially self-aware by becoming aware of the existence of our active body in the center of our perceptual field of objects.”

[xi] Bergson, H. (1910). Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, Allen and Unwin, p.90.

“Representative sensation, looked at in itself, is pure quality; but seen through the medium of extensity, this quality becomes in a certain sense quantity, and is called intensity. In the same way, our projection of our psychic states into space in order to form a discrete multiplicity is likely to influence these states themselves and to give them in reflective consciousness a new form, which immediate perception did not attribute to them. Now, let us notice that when we speak of time, we generally think of a homogenous medium in which our conscious states are ranged alongside one another in space, so as to form a discrete multiplicity. Would not time, thus understood, be to the multiplicity of our psychic states what intensity is to certain of them, a sign, a symbol, absolutely distinct from true duration? Let us ask consciousness to isolate itself from the external world, and, by a vigorous effort of abstraction, to become itself again.”

[xii] Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of Perception. Psychology Press, p.474.

“Inside and outside are wholly inseparable. The world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside myself.”

[xiii] Todes, S. (2001). Body and World. MIT Press, p.128.

“The percipient begins empty of content, lost in the world, having only the need for content. The percipient has to achieve fullness. He does this by determining a passing object. His activity in doing so acquires unity and specificity from the concrete unity of the object that he skilfully determines in this way. In the completed perceptual object, the percipient perceives a reflection of his own momentarily completed activity.”