Time Perception: What exactly is time for the human brain?


There is one thing that baffles me. It is the idea of time. We are going to talk about Time Perception or how the brain experiences time. We look at clocks, we learn what an hour is. We look at the sun, we know what a day is.

But do we? We can purposefully evaluate what time is. We can imagine how much time we have before it is our birthday, how much time is left to leave the office. We can imagine how tediously long a boring conversation would be.

I mean, our interpretation of what we consciously know includes an aspect of time. But what is the brain component doing?

The sense of time is one of the most unique sensory systems.

Time perception: What is time for the brain?

Time is elusive. All of evolution has largely had background information which is represented as the environment through Time. Time is a variable that has always existed for us.

A few years ago, I learned about David Eagleman’s research on Time perception.

He ran a number of experiments to see how humans perceive time- what leads to experiencing time differently.

His team concludes that we experience time as a function of information entering the brain. Time is experienced based on the neural representation of what we experience.

What does it take for the brain to, metaphorically, ‘hold the incoming information’? Whatever mental & biological resources the brain uses to represent that information, somehow, is bound to our idea of Time.

Feeling like everything is happening in slow motion just before an accident? Your brain is in a hyper-perceptive sort of a state. Information is probably dense and a lot of mental resources are being used to hold it.

David Eagleman devised an experiment to see if we actually perceive time in slow motion. He simulated people falling from a height which would push the body in a hyper-perceptive ‘save yourself’ mode: mimicking a deadly situation. He then attached a screen in front of their eyes with very fast presentations of visual stimuli. He hypothesized that if time slows down in a dire situation, the subjects should see the high-speed content on the screen. But they did not.

Turns out that we don’t ‘see’ more information consciously because everything is moving slowly. But we experience a much longer duration of time when our body is in a dire situation – like falling from a dangerous height. Time then becomes a function of how much resources the brain avails in a situation.

The brain experiences time as a function of the energy and resources needed to experience the moment. Click To Tweet

The brain experiences time as a function of the amount of energy it takes to represent sensory information as neural impulses. The more energy required, the slower time is perceived. You can think of it as more information coming into your senses, more time you’ll feel it takes. Suddenly reduce that information, the moment will pass by very quickly.

Time perception through the lifespan

A cool insight about experiencing time is how much new ‘footage’ your brain creates in an experience. When you are young, you are constantly learning and you are seeking novelty. A youngster is learning the rules of the world, academic content, life experiences, meeting new people, working on hobbies, etc. As a result, the brain enables more resources, creates new memories, time passes slowly. But when you reflect on the time you spent, you can immediately notice that you had a lot of time.

When you are in your 30s I’m sure you’ve wondered – ‘how the hell did I have so much time?’ I did so many things when I was young. That is because time was relatively slow for your brain because of the novelty in experiences.

When you are 60, there is little the average person does that has not been done before. There is little novelty and as a result, time perception is faster. You don’t create new memories, you don’t learn as much. This makes your experience of time really fast. When you look back ‘The I had so much time’ emotion is even more magnified.

You might not be immortal but you can feel that you are living a really long life if you seek novelty! You will experience more time because of the novelty in experiences. The secret to immortality is rich novel experiences. Click To Tweet

David Eagleman describes how to slow down time perception very well in this short video. Check it out.

This brings us to memory- the other elusive feature of the human brain.

Representing information in the brain is really close to what we call ‘memory.’ So does time perception depend on the amount of information contained in the memory? Does it depend on how much mental resource was needed to form that memory? It’s a blurry picture.

How did perceiving time with reference to looking at a clock suddenly reach memory formation?

Time perception is complex.

Doctor Who is right…

Time perception: an introduction to how the brain represents time

Time perception – the wise words of Doctor Who

except… that wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff is the brain.

The biology of time perception

The crazy thing is that our body does have rhythmic behavior like a clock – brainwaves, sleep cycles, temperature regulation, etc. It could’ve been intuitive that such rhythms are used to model time.

But NO. Not completely, at least.

Representation of information is used to perceive time. This is over and above our purposeful calculation of Time – like looking at the clock.

A new profound discovery is that of the time cells in the brain. Turns out that time is embedded in our memory, specifically episodic memories (the memory of experiences). We know that there is a small brain region buried deep toward the center of the brain that is important for forming memories and understanding space and locations. This region also learns to understand time. These ‘time cells’ in the hippocampus seem to be important for representing anything that has a temporal component. They integrate space, time, and memory.

Role of hippocampus in time perception

Sounds intuitive right? Not so much. Because, even though the hippocampal region integrates space, time, and memory, we can consciously separate all 3 to an extent and reflect on each component. Here is what makes things even more complex. We know that memory is closely related to time perception. We can then look at the location of memory in the brain. But that isn’t an easy question to answer. There is evidence that there are multiple levels of memory storage, biologically speaking – as a supply of neurons to form memories, at the cellular level, at a neural interaction level, etc. We won’t get there today. Read this to get a technical idea and read this for the biological aspects of memory.

HOW and WHY is time perception so complex? It’s not like we look at a red mug and our brain relatively understands the representation of red and then we conclude that it is a red mug. We don’t sense time as such.

From what we know through research, we perceive time because our brain processes information from the other senses and then, (magic happens) memories are layed down within a context of time & space.

Let me digress and ask this question –

If time is contingent on how the brain processes information, why is it time? and not the ‘weight of information’? Are they both separately derived from the same information?

Time has to be this timey-wimey thingy that our brain does or perceives or creates.

The fun section of the article

Try this: (an excerpt from one of his articles)

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. What is happening to the time gaps during which your eyes are moving? Why do you feel as though there is no break in time while you’re changing your eye position? (Remember that it’s easy to detect someone else’s eyes moving, so the answer cannot be that eye movements are too fast to see.)

Time perception is an elusive…. what’s the right word?


Read more: BRAIN TIME | Edge.org

Still hungry for more time? Read even more.

P.S. This article is not intended to confuse you.

P.P.S. I lied. Can’t help it. Time perception is incredibly complex and we know very very little. Let’s not even get to the physics side of the nature of time. Perhaps understanding the nature of time and time perception would make us time-lords in the real sense.

P.P.P.S. So Who is a time lord.? Get it? 🙂


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