Time as Perception

At the urging of my younger brother I recently read an article on the New Yorker’s website about a neuroscientist by the name of David Eagleman. Eagleman’s primary focus is time perception and the mechanics of how the human brain edits the world around us and skewing that which we perceive as time. It’s a pretty interesting, if sometimes long-winded, read about the effects our brain has on our own realities.

The most interesting bit, for me, was the discussion of how time as we perceive it, is out of synch with reality. Our brain is receiving vast amounts of data from the senses; however all of those senses communicate at different speeds.  In order to present a cohesive reality, the brain must hold onto information and only pass it on when all the other clues have arrived.

Not only does this put us out of synch with the actual measurable chronology of events, it can also cause our perception of time to slow or speed up.  This is something I had read before, but the article goes over it a bit more. The more familiar a situation is, the less data your brain will bother to record. So all those early birthday parties, where everything is new and exciting? They can stretch out as huge epic events in your mind. By the time you are 43? Not so much. Hell, turning 30 was a bit of a snooze fest. I don’t even really remember what I did last year, but I still have clear pictures of turning 7.

What this doesn’t account for, in my mind, is the way boredom can stretch out for eternity. My work day has been pretty mundane for years, without much to really get the old cortex revved up.  While time as a whole ‘flies’ by as I age, every work day still feels excruciating long. As an inverse, working on a short story / piece of art / hanging with my daughter can pass in the blink of an eye, even though tons of new shit is happening.

Eagleman even discusses the possibility of alien species that have different perceptions of time. Could such an encounter leave us viewing a sentient species as little more than trees or vice versa?

All very interesting stuff to ponder.

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