The Human Brain Is a Time Machine — Science of Us

Photo: Victor Habbick Visions/Getty Images/Science Photo Library

“Time” is the most common noun in the English language, Dean Buonomano tells us on the first page of his new book, Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time. But our despite fixation with time, and its obvious centrality in our lives, we still struggle to fully understand it.

From a psychology perspective, for instance, time seems to flow by, sometimes slowly — like when we’re stuck in line at the DMV — and sometimes quickly — like when we’re lost in an engrossing novel. But from a physics perspective, time may be simply another dimension in the universe, like length, height, or width. Buonomano, a professor of neuroscience at UCLA, lays out the latest, best theories about how we understand time, illuminating a fundamental aspect of being human.

The human brain, he writes, is a time machine that allows us to mentally travel backward and forward, to plan for the future and agonizingly regret that past like no other animal. And, he argues, our brains are time machines like clocks are time machines: constantly tracking the passage of time, whether it’s circadian rhythms that tell us when to go to sleep, or microsecond calculations that allow us to the hear the difference between “They gave her cat-food” and “They gave her cat food.”

In an interview with Science of Us, Buonomano spoke about planning for the future as a basic human activity, the limits of be-here-now mindfulness, and the inherent incompatibility between physicists’ and neuroscientists’ understanding of the nature of time.

I finished reading your book late last night and went to bed sort of planning our interview today, and then woke up at about 3:30 a.m. ready to do the interview, with my head full of insistent thoughts about questions that I should ask you. So was that my brain being a — maybe malfunctioning — time machine?
I think this is consistent with the notion that the brain is an organ that’s future-oriented. As far as survival goes, the evolutionary value of the brain is to act in the present to ensure survival in the future, whether survival is figuring out a good place to get food, or doing an interview, I suppose.

And there’s something distinctly human about this? Animals have the ability to look into the future and plan, but not to the extent that humans do.
Yeah, so whether it’s the brain of mammals or other humans, the brain is always attempting to predict the future. If you’re a herbivore or you’re looking for a mate, your brain is telling you to go one way or the other because it’s making its best estimates as to what will optimize its chances of achieving that goal.

But what seems to be distinctly human is certainly the extent that…

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