Archive for April 26th, 2011

If you’ll give me a minute or two, I’m about to go off on yet another tangent about time, all in my good time, of course.

The fact that my time is very likely different from your time is the grabber here, and not just different now, but variable depending on your circumstances and mine.

WTF is this woman on about now? (Yes, I can hear you … )

It’s this from the New Yorker that gave me pause … and led my paws to the keyboard of my poor, dying Mac … on time spent and discussed with David Eagleman, one of the more interesting people around these days, a thirty-nine-year-old assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

He is a man obsessed by time. As the head of a lab at Baylor, Eagleman has spent the past decade tracing the neural and psychological circuitry of the brain’s biological clocks. He has had the good fortune to arrive in his field at the same time as fMRI scanners, which allow neuroscientists to observe the brain at work, in the act of thinking. But his best results have often come through more inventive means: video games, optical illusions, physical challenges. Eagleman has a talent for testing the untestable, for taking seemingly sophomoric notions and using them to nail down the slippery stuff of consciousness. “There are an infinite number of boring things to do in science,” he told me. “But we live these short life spans. Why not do the thing that’s the coolest thing in the world to do?”

As head of a department that has most showing up wearing watches that haven’t worked for ages, Eagleman has a take on time I’d like to wrap my head around, but the second I feel I’m grasping an idea both the thought and the second are beyond me. The concept, for example, that time is a dimension, or that which asks, ” … how much of what we perceive exists outside of us and how much is a product of our minds?”

According to the guy at Baylor “brain time” … that’s our reality, not microseconds or millennia, since we don’t actually get either of those at any level that’s helpful … is 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?

Rather like the fact that one’s nose is always in the vision path but edited out of perceptions, it is true that we miss an awful lot of what is right in front of us. There are, of course, reasons our brains leave out many salient details, but it’s important we realize this happens, and happens all the time.

All the time being non-constant, as it is, some of the time shifts things around a good deal … like when you’re scared shitless and time slows in that aggravating way that allows perception of every little article of terror and laminates all.

I can still distinctly recall every detail of a car accident I was in when I was 14 … the images out the window as single frames of spinning world, the sound of metal under force, the smell of black rubber smoking across tarmac, the realization that my head was about to hit safety glass and the hope that I wouldn’t end up a bloody mess and that my father wouldn’t kill me for being in a situation I was so not supposed to have set myself up for. The whole experience took less than a few seconds, but I could easily manage a couple of pages of description that would feel about the same duration if read … slowly.

Eagleman studies this.

In one story, a man is thrown off his motorcycle after colliding with a car. As he’s sliding across the road, perhaps to his death, he hears his helmet bouncing against the asphalt. The sound has a catchy rhythm, he thinks, and he finds himself composing a little ditty to it in his head.

“Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”

Being a wimp when it comes to things like jumping off high places, this goes far to explain what it is about that sort of nutso stuff appeals. Although the idea of having the sensations seem to last longer is nothing I’d vote for, I can almost understand why others would like that.

One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, he explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. “This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.

There is more to this, but I seem to have run out of time. I may need to find something to scare me to slow things down a bit, but for now I’ll near the edge by trying to post this blog as my Mac heats up and meltdown threatens.

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