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New Clues To How the Brain Maps Time (quantamagazine.org) 79

An anonymous reader sends this excerpt from Quanta Magazine: Our brains have an extraordinary ability to monitor time. A driver can judge just how much time is left to run a yellow light; a dancer can keep a beat down to the millisecond. But exactly how the brain tracks time is still a mystery. Researchers have defined the brain areas involved in movement, memory, color vision and other functions, but not the ones that monitor time. Indeed, our neural timekeeper has proved so elusive that most scientists assume this mechanism is distributed throughout the brain, with different regions using different monitors to keep track of time according to their needs.

Over the last few years, a handful of researchers have compiled growing evidence that the same cells that monitor an individual's location in space also mark the passage of time. This suggests that two brain regions — the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex, both famous for their role in memory and navigation — can also act as a sort of timer.

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New Clues To How the Brain Maps Time

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  • Yeah Yeah (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @01:26AM (#51379747) Homepage Journal
    And they stitch sensory input together to provide the illusion of continuity to the various bits. It's the only way the entire system could possibly maintain the level of cohesion it does.
  • by Z00L00K ( 682162 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @01:32AM (#51379775) Homepage

    It seems to me that the relativity of time seems to decrease with age and experience. In School five minutes could be an eternity while when you were having fun it went in a flash.

    But now when I'm older it seems to me that I have a reasonable time awareness most of the time, waking up when it's time to wake up, knowing that it's time to stop doing what I'm doing when it's time to do something else and so on.

    Overall it seems to me that the brain has now linked tasks to time awareness even without really thinking of it. Only rarely when the task at hand requires a very high level of attention it's easy to lose track of time.

    The Slashdot quote of the moment seems to fit this subject too: "Promptness is its own reward, if one lives by the clock instead of the sword."

    • by bakes ( 87194 )

      I found that my own perception of time improved remarkably after I stopped wearing a watch all the time. When I was 18 my watch was stolen, and I never bothered to get a new one. This was before mobile phones, nowadays I still don't wear a watch but I do carry a phone most of the time - although my perception of time is still pretty good. As you say, that could be age/experience rather than more practice when I was younger.

      • I can't see how going without a watch entirely is practical when you have to catch a bus at a particular minute, and if you miss one, it's an hour wait for the next. Or did you already have a car and enough income to fuel and insure it by 18?

        • by bakes ( 87194 )

          Correct, I had a car that was cheap to buy and to run, and had a part-time job that was enough to cover it. If I needed the exact time, I was usually surrounded by people with watches OR by clocks on a wall, VCR, microwave oven, etc.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I have heard it suggested that our perception of longer time periods is proportional to the amount of time we have experienced, so if you are 10 years old, a year is 10% of your life, and a long long time, whereas when you are 50 years old, a year is only 2% of your life, so a year flashes by and you are surprised that it's Christmas again.

      Shorter periods are still variable, so waiting for a dentist with a toothache takes a long time, but eating ice cream is over in a flash (unless you have a toothache!).

    • by dov_0 ( 1438253 )
      While working as a chef I found that I could put things in the oven, completely forget about them and go on with other tasks. My internal timer would go off exactly when the food was supposed to come out of the oven. It's been timed by others. Correct to within seconds. Didn't bother with timers. Even if I'd forgotten that I'd put something in the oven, the internal timer would remind me at the right time. At a trattoria I knew where every pizza etc was in the belt driven oven too. Could tell the head chef
  • by bugs2squash ( 1132591 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @01:35AM (#51379793)
    is it possible that those areas of the brain are associated with the concept of quantity of any kind (length, weight, number) and that this is just another measure, maybe a count of other neural activity in some way. After all, perception of time seems to vary considerably depending on what's going on.
    • by Calydor ( 739835 )

      If the brain's ability to keep track of time is based on neural activity (I can't help but compare it a bit to ancient computer games that used the CPU clock to determine speed ...), that could be linked to the way time seems to slow down if you find yourself in a suddenly dangerous situation, with the brain going into a momentary overdrive to find a solution before it's too late.

  • Considering time is directly linked to movement through space it's not surprising our brains use the same area to measure and remember both.

  • When your are sitting on a turned on oven burner, your brain maps time slow. When you are on holiday or otherwise enjoying yourself, your brain maps time fast.

  • by Anonymous Coward


  • Physicists and philosophers have not been any more successful, really

      "most scientists assume this mechanism is distributed throughout the brain, with different regions using different monitors to keep track of time according to their needs"

    Or maybe this mechanism is distributed throughout everything, all at once, and keeping track of time is just a perceived phenomenological need. ...or whatever that means.... string cheese, anyone?

  • > Our brains have an extraordinary ability to monitor time.
    If you can't manage seeing speed, either you get eaten or you starve because you cannot eat - talking reptiles, insects, even much lower. You are prey or looking for prey (redundant - not sure for what that's good).
    Glad somebody is figuring out the how's after all that time it exists..

  • Maybe within 10 milliseconds, perhaps... but a millisecond is far too brief a duration for a human being to assess or even respond with muscle memory.
  • Of course the same area tracks time and space. The space-time continuum is 4 dimensional. Would you expect a different brain region to track the X axis and one to track the Y axis? :-)

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Put a brain scanner in the DMV office and determine which regions of the brain shut down, making it seem like you are stuck there forever. Mystery solved.
  • even more weird (Score:4, Informative)

    by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @10:01AM (#51381201) Journal

    ...is our brain's ability to portray simultaneity.

    If you touch a person's toe and nose at the same time, the speed-of-travel for that signal and significantly different distances that signal travels SHOULD result in a noticeable lag between the two, but doesn't; even when blindfolded, a person feels them at the same time.

    How is this possible?

    At first glance, one might assume the brain is 'pausing' the nose-signal to wait for the toe-signal. But how does it know to DO this, when it doesn't know that a toe signal is even coming?
    The best theory I've heard so far is that EVERY sensory input is delayed for the amount of time it would take the furthest signal to reach the brain, and then assembled into a coherent stream-of-time order as if time-stamped (but AFAIK there's no trace of a time-stamp signal in nerve signals).

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Nerve impulses travel 200 mph (320 feet per second.) The nerve impulse to get from your toe to your spinal column takes less than 1/100th of a second. I am skeptical that humans can distinguish the difference in 1/100th of a second from touch.

  • Yellow (Score:3, Informative)

    by BradleyUffner ( 103496 ) on Wednesday January 27, 2016 @10:12AM (#51381271) Homepage

    A driver can judge just how much time is left to run a yellow light

    Not many of the drivers that I've seen. Light turns red and 3 more cars go zipping through.

"The algorithm to do that is extremely nasty. You might want to mug someone with it." -- M. Devine, Computer Science 340