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20171117 You brain is your time machine



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The main idea of this book is to review the notion of time in all its complexity from all possible angles: historical, psychological, physiological, mathematical, theoretical physics, and even mental time travel in literature.



1:00 Flavors of Time

It starts with presentation of variety of attitudes to the notion of time:

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After this author moves to describe history of time, or more precisely of its discovery, since the time not always was something that was consciously perceived by humans. Here author traces it from initial vague notions to mathematical perception of time as the fourth dimension of the space/time continuum. Author also looks at neuroscience of time understanding, eventually completing this chapter with philosophical understanding of time divided into the two contradictory camps: Presentism when only the present exists and Eternalism when all time dependent events exist exactly like other 3 dimensions of the space that is if we are only at one specific point at any given time, nevertheless any other point on time dimension also exists. Finally, author discusses plurality of time as used in language and human perception, positing that at the core is time as measured by clocks.

2:00 The Best Time Machine You’ll Ever Own

This is about imaginary time travel and human brain as the best time machine that is. It properly starts with H.G. Wells and touches on multitude of other images including mathematically sound 4D space. The characteristics of the brains as time machine are:

  • It remembers past in order to predict future
  • It tells time
  • It creates sense of time
  • It allows mentally travel in time back and forth.

Author also looks at the time as a teacher that teach us that cause and effect must be continuous in time and space; that cause must be before effect; and that time follow clearly defined direction that could not be reversed.

The next part of the chapter looks at human the brain and synaptic causes and effect that happen there.

3:00 Day and Night

This is about human perception of time periods of a day and circadian rhythms that control them. Author discusses multiple experiments with isolation when person has no way to identify time of the day. In such cases time seems to be shortening in the mind so 170 days feels like 150 or so. Authors discuses in details how it all works and how various cycles in body starting at molecular level influence perception of time with significant variance from astronomical time.

4:00 The Sixth Sense

This is also about subjective time perception, but it is more about such cases as dangerous situations when time seems to be standing still. One interesting part of it is variance between prospective and retrospective time perception. Author discusses the link of both types to the memory. When time is filled up with events it runs fast and posts a lot of information into the memory. Correspondingly if there are no events, just waiting for something, it moves slowly and leaves very little to recall. The contemporary perception of a long and short times usually changes when it becomes memory. Long, one-day delay at airport becomes barely recallable, but one day walking around of tourist attractions contains multitude of memories good enough for a few days. Author also discusses cause of slow-motion effects:

  • Overclocking – mobilization of organism causes all processes to accelerate, creating illusion that person thinks and moves faster than in reality
  • Hypermemory – this is an idea that slow motion is post factum illusion created by assigning the event very high value and import.
  • Metaillusion – since reality is always just a construction of brain, the slow motion is constructed on the top of normal perceptions with magnifying effects.

These illusions relate not only to time, but also to space and all other perceptions.

5:00 Patterns in Time

This starts with discussion of relationship between time and language when different timing defines meaning of speech including such low level as difference between P and B defined by time allowed for air release while speaking. Timing also plays a big part in defining emotional content of the speech example is “not” jokes. After that author goes to time relevant aspects of motherese, fully timing based Morse code, time length perception of sounds, songbirds, and music. The chapter ends with discussion of neuro mechanics of length of time perception for sounds and similar events.

6:00 Time, Neural Dynamics, and Chaos

Here author moves to time measurement methods starting with regular clock and then moving to Supra and Infra period timing, the idea based on brain time processing, which is not necessary some kind of oscillator like in time measuring devices. This leads to a discussion of timing of the sequence of events such as rain drops and ripples generated by them and similar case of synaptic plasticity. It is connected to the idea of state dependent networks, which are basically core of processes in the brain discussed in the bulk of this chapter.


7:00 Keeping Time

Author starts here with introduction of idea of temporal telescopes that allow us to look into the past or future. At first it leads to the discussion of atomic structure of the brain, formation of neurons, and such, then author moves to various time related devices from calendars to clocks, pendulums, and other oscillators that are at the core of time measurement.

8:00 Time: What the Hell Is It?

Here author goes back to the meaning of time and links it to the meaning of existence referring to previously discussed notions of Presentism and Eternalism, whether it is arrow or double-headed arrow or some other notion developed from fancy ideas produced by physicists.

9:00 The Spatialization of Time in Physics

This is about theoretical physics approach to the time as just one of dimensions of continuum, relativity of time and its dependence on speed. Somewhat unusual trick here is an attempt to remove inconsistency between eternalistic presentation of time/space and human perception of time moving from past to future via current by claiming that it is just neurological illusion of existence of now. Author poses a funny question if the block universe is compatible with neuroscience, but could not provide a clear answer.

10:00 The Spatialization of Time in Neuroscience

This is a look at the time beyond physics from purely human perspective. Author finds that even here time is considered as a dimension of space, albeit somewhat strange because one can move along it only in one direction or, alternatively it is moving through. Here is a nice illustration of these approaches:

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At the end author kind of connects time perception to general human susceptibility to illusions.

11:00 Mental Time Travel

This is about relation between time and brain. The brain actually could be considered a tool for mental time travel that allow analyze past and predict future from primitive prediction of future spatial position of running animal to plan on achieving some specific objective many years in the future. Author cannot help but mention human tendency to allocate much more value to the close future than to the distant one.

12:00 Consciousness: Binding the Past and the Future

The final chapter is about human mind ability to connect past and future, calibrating one’s behavior based on known actions and result in the past, and ability to predict future results, making live somewhat predictable, but a lot less than everybody would want.


The time is an interesting notion that I somewhat straggled back some 40 years ago when I did my classes in theoretical physics. Somehow I could not connect the clear and simple mathematical concepts of theory of relativity with common sense and experience of everyday live. Author discusses this kind of problem in his presentation of philosophical dispute between Eternalists and Presentists and he seems to be inclined to support the Eternalists approach. I on other hand learned over all these years that when there is any inconsistency between theory and common sense the latter should be treated preferentially just because it’s analog character guaranties inclusion of much more relevant information, albeit at the expense of being imprecise. I guess, in other worlds, I am convinced Presentist, even if this view is not supported by theoretical models of speculative science. As to the neurological and psychological side of the time, I think that compression of the past is natural feature of human memory, while ongoing present leading to unpredictable future that one will have to live second by second is inevitably seems to be slow moving unless one is in process of psychological flow. In short the Externalist’s spatial model of time as dimension is good for mathematical modeling and useless for living one’s live. The latter activity would be done much better if time were treated as a limited resource spent carefully.


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