Perception of Time

April 18, 2011

A great essay on perception and time as seen through the neuroscientist David Eagleman’s work:

“(B)rain time,” as Eagleman calls it, is intrinsically subjective. “Try this exercise,” he suggests in a recent essay. “Put this book down and go look in a mirror. Now move your eyes back and forth, so that you’re looking at your left eye, then at your right eye, then at your left eye again. When your eyes shift from one position to the other, they take time to move and land on the other location. But here’s the kicker: you never see your eyes move.” There’s no evidence of any gaps in your perception—no darkened stretches like bits of blank film—yet much of what you see has been edited out. Your brain has taken a complicated scene of eyes darting back and forth and recut it as a simple one: your eyes stare straight ahead. Where did the missing moments go?

The question raises a fundamental issue of consciousness: how much of what we perceive exists outside of us and how much is a product of our minds? Time is a dimension like any other, fixed and defined down to its tiniest increments: millennia to microseconds, aeons to quartz oscillations. Yet the data rarely matches our reality. The rapid eye movements in the mirror, known as saccades, aren’t the only things that get edited out. The jittery camera shake of everyday vision is similarly smoothed over, and our memories are often radically revised. What else are we missing? When Eagleman was a boy, his favorite joke had a turtle walking into a sheriff’s office. “I’ve just been attacked by three snails!” he shouts. “Tell me what happened,” the sheriff replies. The turtle shakes his head: “I don’t know, it all happened so fast.”

Eagleman, a charismatic man with a wealth of analogies and abilities to teach, draws his notions – a myriad of complex notions – of time and perception out:

The brain, he writes, is like Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperor of the thirteenth century. It sits enthroned in its skull, “encased in darkness and silence,” at a lofty remove from brute reality. Messengers stream in from every corner of the sensory kingdom, bringing word of distant sights, sounds, and smells. Their reports arrive at different rates, often long out of date, yet the details are all stitched together into a seamless chronology. The difference is that Kublai Khan was piecing together the past. The brain is describing the present—processing reams of disjointed data on the fly, editing everything down to an instantaneous now.

Eagleman explains much, including why it is that it seems as though time moves more rapidly, the older we become.

Read Burkhard Bilger’s whole article on David Eagleman, here: www.newyorker.com

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