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Book Review: Why do our brains perceive time the way they do?

Neuroscientist Dean Buonomano draws on evolutionary biology, psychology and philosophy to explore how we see the present, and the future.

books Updated: Jul 09, 2017 08:43 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time
  • By Dean Buonomano
  • Publisher: WW Norton
  • Price: Rs 957 (Hardcover)

What is time? Is it a physical dimension, like space? Or is its passage an illusion? Is time chronological or does it exist simultaneously? Can Schrödinger’s cat be dead and alive?

The questions are many and the answers are either profound or elusive. Neuroscientist Dean Buonomano draws on evolutionary biology, physics, neurology, psychology and philosophy to explore how humans perceive time and how our perception of it makes us who we are.

Time is both a dimension and a mental construct, he says. It’s all in our head and this is what makes our brain a virtual time machine.

Time and space are inextricably linked. While the passage of time is easy to track in physical terms – day and night, changing seasons, ageing – time as consciousness exists simultaneously as memory of past experiences, and imagination, which helps us perceive the future.

The human brain creates a sense of chronological flow while allowing for “mental time travel”.

It’s essentially a future-oriented organ or machine that lets us plan our actions in the present to ensure we survive and thrive in the future. This ability to imagine a long-term future is distinctly human and it not only helps us navigate the present but also optimise our chances of achieving the goals we set for the future.

This ability of the brain to map future time is what has given humans the evolutionary advantage and enabled us to establish civilisations and empires and bring about the rapid changes that allowed us to move out of our caves and conquer space.

Take for example of the Pirahã Indians from the Amazon rainforests, Buonomano says. According to the American linguist and author Daniel Everett, who studied them extensively, they live in the present and don’t give much thought to their long-term future, which lowers the stress and anxiety associated with modern life. But this very anxiety about survival, health, money and relationships is what has helped humans innovate and create to fight disease and increase longevity, Buonomano writes.

A healthy, long life requires a significant amount of worrying about the future, so it would seem that the time machine in our heads is ticking just right.