One of the things I meant to do over the weekend was catch up on some magazine reading, and in doing that I’d hoped to read the April 25th issue of the New Yorker. It featured, among other things, a profile of neuroscientist David Eagleman, who has spent the past decade studying the brain’s biological clock — in particular how time seems to slow down when we find ourselves in life-threatening situations — by Burkhard Bilger, who may have the most New Yorker writer name in the history of New Yorker writers.
So last night I was feeling guilty for not having caught up on all the magazine reading I’d hoped to catch up on when Reuters finance and media writer Felix Salmon tweeted, “Burkhard Bilger’s profile of David Eagleman is one of the great magazine articles of all time.”
Well f*ck me.
So I stayed up until 2am or so to read Bilger’s piece, and by golly I think Felix is on to something! Holy crap did this engross me while also making me feel impossibly stupid — thanks mainly to Eagleman’s ginormous intellect — at the same time.
You see, the scientist has found evidence that, unbeknownst to us, our minds often move back and forth in time and our perceptions of the world are carefully edited by our brains. In other words, what we sometimes see with our own eyes is not actually happening as we see it. “Reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully censored before it reaches us,” Bilger notes.
The brain is a remarkably capable chronometer for most purposes. It can track seconds, minutes, days, and weeks, set off alarms in the morning, at bedtime, on birthdays and anniversaries. Timing is so essential to our survival that it may be the most finely tuned of our senses. In lab tests, people can distinguish between sounds as little as five milliseconds apart, and our involuntary timing is even quicker. If you’re hiking through a jungle and a tiger growls in the underbrush, your brain will instantly home in on the sound by comparing when it reached each of your ears, and triangulating between the three points. The difference can be as little as nine-millionths of a second.
Yet “brain time,” as Eagleman calls it, is intrinsically subjective. “Try this exercise,” he suggests in a recent essay. “Put this book down and 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.” There’s no evidence of any gaps in your perception—no darkened stretches like bits of blank film—yet much of what you see has been edited out. Your brain has taken a complicated scene of eyes darting back and forth and recut it as a simple one: your eyes stare straight ahead. Where did the missing moments go?
The question raises a fundamental issue of consciousness: how much of what we perceive exists outside of us and how much is a product of our minds? Time is a dimension like any other, fixed and defined down to its tiniest increments: millennia to microseconds, aeons to quartz oscillations. Yet the data rarely matches our reality. The rapid eye movements in the mirror, known as saccades, aren’t the only things that get edited out. The jittery camera shake of everyday vision is similarly smoothed over, and our memories are often radically revised. What else are we missing? When Eagleman was a boy, his favorite joke had a turtle walking into a sheriff’s office. “I’ve just been attacked by three snails!” he shouts. “Tell me what happened,” the sheriff replies. The turtle shakes his head: “I don’t know, it all happened so fast.”
Warning: Though you may finally learn how your brain sometimes wakes you just before your alarm goes off, your brain may actually explode when you read this. And I have to agree with Salmon — Bilger’s piece was one of the more fascinating things I’ve ever read.