Need to know the time? Just look at a clock. But if your brain needs to tell the time, it’s a whole other different theory. Neuroscientist Dean Buonomano is an expert on brains (obviously) but posits that your brain tells time much more by a domino effect than by any sort of mechanism. He uses an interesting pebble-pond-ripple scenario to walk us through it, saying that “if you throw a pebble into a pond it can create this dynamical pattern. And in a way that pattern tells you how much time has elapsed.” Much in the same way, our brain simply looks for patterns. Buonomano goes into it in more detail than we do here in this paragraph, but the science is largely that simple: our brains tell time by looking for disruptions in the moments of zen. Dean’s new book is appropriately called Your Brain Is A Time Machine.
Transcript – So human beings have been building clocks for millennium and it’s been a long endeavor of our species from sundials to hour glasses to pendulum clocks to quartz watches to car and atomic clocks.
Yet the brain has been telling time since the dawn of animal species, right? So even plants have the ability to tell time in terms of circadian clock.
So one of the mysteries in neuroscience that many people are studying is how the brain tells time. So in order to understand how the brain tells time it’s useful to quickly remember how manmade clocks work. And there’s a vast diversity of manmade clocks from pendulums to quartz watches to atomic clocks. And as diverse as these things are they share a common principle, an almost embarrassingly simple principle, which is just counting the ticks of an oscillator. So with the pendulum you just count the ticks of the pendulum going back and forth. In the quartz watch you’re just counting the mechanical vibrations of a quartz crystal. And in the case of an atomic clock it’s a bit more complicated, but they’re related to vacillatory cycle of an electromagnetic waves. So it’s reasonable to ask, “Well is that how the brain tells time? Does the brain have some oscillator that’s ticking away and some circuit that’s counting those ticks and tocks?”
The answer is no. The brain seems to have fundamentally different ways of telling time. So the first thing to notice is that while the mechanical clocks that we make, even your quartz watch can tell time across a vast range of scales from tens of milliseconds to hours, minutes and days and months and years.