Our Personal Time Machine
The possibility of time travel has intrigued people for centuries. Notwithstanding all the creative books and movies, as well as, serious scientific research, one thing remains constant – our brain, the best time machine of all, is already part of our everyday existence.
The human brain, the most sophisticated device in the known universe, lies hidden away within our skull. The brain, a gelatinous mass weighing on average 3 pounds, consisting of 100 billion cells, is an organ that serves as the center of the nervous system.
Four Reasons Why the Brain is a Time Machine
1. The brain is a machine that remembers the past in order to predict the future.
The brain is at its core a prediction or anticipation machine. On a moment-by-moment basis your brain is automatically attempting to predict what is about to occur. These short-term predictions, up to a few seconds into the future, are entirely automatic and unconscious.
We also continuously attempt to make long-term predictions. In order to predict the future the brain stores a vast amount of information about the past, and adds temporal labels (dates) to these memories, allowing us to review episodes of our lives organized on a timeline.
2. The brain is a machine that tells time.
Your brain performs a wide range of time-sensitive computations, including those necessary to recognize a face, or to choose the next move in a chess game. When your brain performs the computation of telling time, it not only measures the seconds, hours and days of our lives, but recognizes and generates temporal patterns, such as the intricate rhythms of a song, or the carefully timed sequence of movements that allow a gymnast to perform a round-off backflip.
From the ability to throw a spear at a moving target, to timing the punch line of a joke, to playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano, to the ability to regulate daily sleep-wake cycles and monthly reproductive cycles, virtually every aspect of our behavior and cognition requires the ability to tell time.
3. The brain is a machine that creates the sense of time.
Unlike vision or hearing, we do not have a sensory organ that detects time. Time is not a form of energy or a fundamental property of matter that can be detected via physical measurements. Yet, much in the same way that we consciously perceive the color of objects (the wavelengths of reflected radiation), we consciously perceive the passage of time.
Like most subjective experiences, our sense of time undergoes many illusions and distortions. The same duration – as measured by an external clock – can seem to fly by or drag depending on a multitude of factors.
Distorted or not, the conscious perception of the passage of time, and that the world around us is in a continuous flux, is among the most familiar and undeniable experiences of all.
4. The brain allows us to mentally travel back and forth in time.
The race to predict the future was won by our ancestors when they developed the ability to understand the concept of time and mentally project themselves backward into the past and forward into the future – that is, to engage in mental time travel.
Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it” – this is exactly what mental time travel has allowed us to do. We went from predicting nature’s capricious ways to creating the future by overruling nature itself.
We have all mentally re-experienced the joy or sorrow of past events and run alternative simulations of those episodes to explore what could have been. In the other direction we jump into the future every time we dread or daydream about what may come, and we simulate different plot lines of our future lives in the hope of determining the best course of action in the present.
Dean Buonomano is an American neuroscientist, psychologist and author. Buonomano is a professor at UCLA. He joined the UCLA faculty in 1998 and has worked in the department of Behavioral Neuroscience there ever since. His research focuses on neurocomputation.
Buonomano has been described as one of the “first neuroscientists to begin to ask how the human brain encodes time.” He is a proponent of the theory that timing and temporal processing are so critical to brain function that most neural circuits are capable of telling time. He developed the influential theory that the brain tells time and processes temporal information not through an internal clock as scientists worldwide had previously theorized, but instead as a result of neural dynamics.
Buonomano is one of the developers of the general neurocomputational framework that he refers to as state-dependent networks or dynamic attractors, and others refer to as liquid state machines or reservoir computing.
Buonomano Lab utilizes research methods such as computational modeling, in vitroelectrophysiology, Optogenetics, and human psychophysics to conduct research observing how individual neurons and the brain as a whole perceive and respond to time.
Books written by Dean Buonomano include:
- Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives
- Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time
“Your Brain is a Time Machine” – Talk by Dean Buonomano at Google, 2017