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the emergence of the sensation of time

Kathy Maffei's picture
The day I picked out my midterm book, I also came across another of interest that wasn’t on the list - The Quantum and the Lotus by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan - and I bought it to read later. My spouse beat me to it and has been pointing out passages from time to time. Last night he showed me one he thought related to our class, and he’s right. I transcribed it below to post for everyone because I thought it was fascinating:
    We probably feel the passing of time because of our cerebral activity. Data concerning the external world are transmitted by our sensory organs to our brain, which incorporates them into a mental picture. This cerebral activity brings into play simultaneously several separate regions of the brain with different functions. According to the neurobiologist Fransisco Varela, it’s the complexity of bringing together and integrating these various parts of the brain that gives us the sensation of time. This orchestrated, synchronous activity of large, discrete sets of neurons, among the hundreds of billions in the human brain, creates what scientists call an “emergent” biological state, that is to say a state, in this case the consciousness of time, that is more than the sum of its parts. Since this state lasts from a few tens to a few hundreds of a millisecond, we have the sensation of “now,” of a present with a duration. But this synchronization of neurons is unstable and doesn’t last. Its instability sets off other synchronous groupings of neurons, producing a succession of emergent states. They then give us the sensation of time passing. Each emergent state forks off from the preceding one, so that the previous one is still present in the succeeding one. This gives us the impression that time is continuous. (page 132)


AngadSingh's picture

This explanation is interesting in that describes the "now" of time and also the continuous nature of time. Unless we are travelling at enormous speed or under extreme gravitational pull, our "sense" of time's flow and its actual, physical progression correspond quite well. The prospect of our sense of inear or continuous time as being internally generated is appealing - simply because such a conception is not entirely accurate in the physical world. I probably wouldn't entertain the thought of increasing lengths as being internally generated. I'd be curious to learn more about the transition states between these emergent biological states? If the states are discrete such that their time lapse can be measured, then must the transitions also be definable and of a measurable time period?
Lisa Spitalewitz's picture

Thanks -- I think this really helps me understand how we sense the passage of time! I don't really have any useful comment to add, but I do appreciate the blogging!