5. How does the brain process time?

“Time” is the most commonly used noun in the English language. The word fills our descriptions of the past, present and future. That said scientists and neuroscientists don't actually know how neural time works.brain “Despite its importance to behavior and perception, the neural bases of time perception remain shrouded in mystery.” David M. Eagleman1,

It has been known for centuries that the brain imposes biases on the perception of time, and those biases become more pronounced the shorter the period of time that has passed - an interesting wrinkle I will explore further. For now I will introduce four cognitive influencers of time.

1) There are no sensory receptors dedicated to time. The perception of time is distributed amongst various brain functions and assembled in an ad-hoc fashion as required for the task on hand. Therefore the perception of time is subject to multiple biases.

2) Over short intervals, the brain uses as an approximation for the passing of time its own rate of information processing. The greater the rate of data being processed, the more time associated with the event.

3) Emotion strongly influences the perception of the sense of time. The theory of “embodied cognition” suggests that our brains mirror and create empathic states to the people and situations around us and adjust our internal clocks accordingly.

4) Finally, It can be argued that there is no “present” or “future” at all: that all of our experiences are processed through the 15 second window of our short term memory and hence life is lived and experienced through the lens of the “near past”. If how we anticipate future events is different than how we experience them, and if how we experience them is different than how we remember them, then this notion suggests that of the three temporal perspectives, the third (past, memory) is the most important.

These factors combine to create some interesting paradoxes: as the brain assembles various timing measurements to orchestrate an incredibly complex set of physical, mental and emotional activities, significant departures from chronological time emerge. These anachronisms become particularly acute when the brain becomes highly focused on an intellectually challenging and emotionally pleasurable task and even more so if there is an emotional bond with the environment or people incorporated in the task. Csikszentmihalyi would call this "flow" which is often accompanied by a separation from the sensation of time passing. I believe it is possible to design experiences in the future to "really live" in the present, and create a past worth remembering. This is the entire purpose of this blog:

"Plan a future to really live today, and create a yesterday worth remembering"

More to come on that, for now let me re-introduce the Second Law of Temporal Dynamics: The Law of Inversion

The experience of time in the present (experienced time) is often inversely proportional to the experience of time in the past (remembered time). Remembered time governs the overall experience of time.

Next Up: I'll share a pair of stories that show this law more clearly.