The Present Action Versus the Present Moment

If the present moment lasts three seconds to the perceiving mind, then what of the actor in his own bubble of time? Surely we may assume that at any given moment we all are performing some action, whether sleeping, running, or performing surgery. We can then subdivide many of these actions into meaningful segments of time that span three or less seconds. In a 100-meter dash, for instance, the entire sprint takes far more than three seconds, but the seemingly single event can be usefully split into multiple frames, in this case according to the individual movements in the body. My left leg lifts up and then overtakes my right, and a moment later, the next action starts as I push off with my right foot; this process can repeat for a number of times. The present action seems adaptable the span of three seconds.

Now, I am standing above the operating table, ready to make a cut into the patient’s skin, a process take approximately ten seconds to execute. In that ten second interval, I would be carefully slicing the skin, myself not consciously aware of any other concurrent action. As a single movement, this ten second present action would not be usefully subdivisional to human terms, and thus not apply to the three second present moment.

What is the difference between the present moment and the present action? The simple answer is that the first is a collection of input sensory, as so described by Miroslav Holub in his article “The Dimension of the Present Moment,” where he specifically points out “in our consciousness, the present moment lasts about three seconds,” but he did not say this additionally applies in our actions. The psychological experiment used to affirm this theory relied on a light or sound signal and the attempt by a subject to reproduce the signal to its correct duration, with generally inaccurate responses if the original signal lasts much different from three seconds in either direction. However, it would be interesting to know whether this human error comes from the input or the output: did the subject misperceive a seven second signal, believing it to last five seconds and then reproducing a five second signal, or did the subject measure correctly the seven second signal but malfunction on the action process, generating only five seconds of output? (Or both?)

In the former case, the present moment seems a more significant concept than the present action, because the present moment directly affects human perception. We could redesign the experiment to simply ask the subject how long they perceived the signal to last, rather than asking him to perform a mimicry action. If the subject responds that he only noticed five seconds of signal, we would then observe the skewing of time created by the present moment.

On the other hand, if the opposite case were true, then we would envision the experiment as a subject who receives a number and must produce a signal lasting that many seconds. If the subject signals for five seconds when asked for seven, then the skewing of time comes probably from the distortion of the present action. By this, I mean that after an action without subdivisions has passed for over three seconds, it becomes more difficult to complete the action in the desired amount of time, because we have accustomed ourselves to think and therefore act in three second dimensions.

To go on with the distinction between the present moment and the present action, the present moment applies in art, linguistics, and other areas of human science, while the present action pertains to the natural sciences, a more universal subject. When not referring to a human, the present moment becomes entirely meaningless. As Holub proposes, humans utilize the three second moment even if unknowingly, a hint that it is pre-programmed into our brains, perhaps as the result of natural evolution, since its generality even when applied across various cultural conditions eliminates cultural development as a major factor. If humans were to disappear, there would remain natural actions but no moments to perceive as no one would exist to perceive them. Actions would still occur abundantly, but would have no reason to stay anywhere near the realm of three seconds; for instance, a snow cap melts from winter to summer, a process of the present action. However, it cannot be split into useful three second intervals, as even in some minute-length durations, the size and shape of the snow cap remain virtually constant. It follows that the present action is quite a separate concept than the present moment.

Even so, an overlap appears between the present action and the present moment. First, both measure something of the present, a segment of time acting as a dimensionless point in the grand timescale of the universe. The present simply serves as the link that fits after the past and before the future. In fact, Albert Einstein had explained, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once,” and sure enough, on a number line, you can distinctly find the present point, but it continuously zips forward, turning the future momentarily in the present and then just as suddenly into the past. The roles of the present moment and the present action are to judge how long this present point lasts. Through a measure of time only, humans will notice a three second moment, but from the standpoint of space, any motion or change of matter constitutes an action, and can take any amount of time. Nuclear strong reactions are known to take billionths of a billionth of a second, while this same nuclear force takes billions of years to burn out a star. In this instance, a year passes like a seeming instant, and with a likewise impression, the English poet John Keats once wrote, “O aching time! O moments big as years!” in his work “Hyperion” (see “Time Measurements”).

These two present qualities also share a similarity in that both impact human behavior, and through this, affect each other. Take sensory feedback for example: I am looking through a telescope at the moon, and the image seems blurry. My perception of this unclarity causes me to perform an action, namely changing the resolution by adjusting the lens distance; however, this action itself causes the image on my eye to change, thus affecting my perception again, etc. A very simplified model of the system is shown in Figure 1.

If the two concepts operate so in tandem, then what are the different implications of each? Holub mentions that Mozart used two to three second musical motifs in a number of his compositions, an indication that the tempo of music relates to the dimension of the present moment. The purpose of music is so an audience will listen to it; Mozart composed what he believed his audience would like to hear, and with this objective, he probably replayed his melodies many times in his head before penning them. Since human short-term memory closely relates to perception of the present moment, it would seem that if a person’s maximum present moment dimension is three seconds, then the best musical patterns would also have a cap of three seconds, because if they lasted much longer, we would not have the capacity to keep the motif into a momentary, short-term memory. On the other hand, if they lasted much shorter, they would contain too little content to entertain our senses. The purpose of utilizing the present moment in music is thus to provide an impressive aesthetic impact.

Poetry, another of Holub’s examples, in a similar way uses the three second moment for the experience of a reader, while everyday speech attempts to inspire someone to listen to us. Music, poetry, and language are examples of human-to-human communication that rely on the three second present moment in order to not confound the subject or reader with a long pattern which he or she cannot possibly keep in short-term memory.

Direct human interaction with the environment, however, seems to focus more on the course of present action. If I have a given paragraph to type plus a fast typing speed, I should be able to enter such a segment with little pause, if any, by solely looking at the words and letting my trained reflexes on the keyboard drive through the characters. On another keyboard, when I first practice a piece of music, I must stop and rehearse various short intervals before developing the ability to play an entire song without careless error. At first, I listen to the music coming from the keys and try to make it match the music printed on the page, and no doubt the three second moment serves as a limiting factor since I keep the music in short-term memory; nonetheless, when I begin to play the music from rehearsed instinct rather than stumbling trial and error, I do not pause except when the music commands me to. Yet in some segments of ultra-fast-paced songs, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” there literally exists no pause time. Supposing I had enough talent and time to practice such a song to an overwhelming extent, I should be able to play it entirely from accumulated long-term memory and reflex, even if I am focused entirely on something else, say, staring at the clouds outside while wearing earplugs. In that case, playing the song does not constitute the present moment, as it lasts far longer than three seconds, but rather the present action, which cannot be subdivided since I am subconsciously hitting keys for the entire time.

This differs from the original example of the runner in that when he sprints the 100-meter, the runner occupies a unique point of the race at any given moment of time in that interval, hence his perception changes as his actions change, generating the sensory-action feedback loop, a relation to the present moment. The act of my playing a song while unable to hear the music or see my hands play individual keys becomes a prolonged subconscious action, and by removing perception, the performance disrupts the feedback cycle and causes the present action to completely overtake the present moment.

So while the rigidity of the three second present moment is useful for interactive, aesthetic appeal in art and social activity, the indeterminacy of the present action is useful for subconscious phenomena. Of course, when we speak in daily terms, the present moment and the present action are synonymous, because what we currently do defines the moment we are currently in. However, if we learn to channel some parts of our conscious into the subconscious, perhaps by exerting it through some present action, which can last more than three seconds, we could potentially focus more of our brainpower on our conscious mind and bring back subconscious thoughts later, overall improving our thought capacity since our conscious mind then would not be limited to three seconds. This can partially explain why repeating a certain action could assist memorization, because by performing the action, we can perhaps store some information into the vast and longer-lasting expanses of the subconscious. Indeed, if the present moment lasts three seconds while the present action can last further, then a mix between the two would optimize remembrance in a given circumstance. Hopefully we will potentially extend through this way the dimension of the present moment.


Holub, Miroslav. “The Dimension of the Present Moment.” The Dimension of the Present Moment. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.

“Time Measurements.” Quotations. Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation.