Ingfei Chen reports the impression of neuroscientist György Buzsáki that what the neurons in our brain measure is not a tempo that is constructed by clocks. Rather, such neurons measure change or acceleration that occurs to us outside cultural constructions of that change.

To most of us, it seems self-evident that our brains must have something like a “sense” of time—a system for tracking the passage of time, analogous to the visual system, which detects changes in the visible world. Yet our heads contain no temporal “sensors”—and “neurons in the brain have no access to human-constructed instruments, so they have no clue about time,” Buzsáki noted when we spoke last month. Whatever our neurons are measuring, it’s not the tick of an actual clock. Moreover, he argued, both time and clocks are cultural constructions—inventions that modern societies have inherited from their predecessors. Some indigenous tribes experience “time” very differently. The Amondawa people of the Amazon, Buzsáki said, think in terms of “change”—when tribe members cross life thresholds, such as menstruation or marriage, they are given different names—but have no words for months or years and don’t know how old they are.

Speaking with Buzsáki, I found myself wondering what my brain was actually sensing when I seem to feel time flowing, second by second, minute by minute. “It has to be measuring something else, such as change or speed or acceleration, for which we do have sensors,” Buzsáki told me. If that’s the case, then “time” isn’t an absolute thing that our brains can “track” or “measure”; it’s more like an organizational system for making sense of change in the world around us and coördinating our lives.

“Of course time is change,” Edvard Moser agreed. Another way to describe his lab’s analyses of the L.E.C. would be to say that it uncovered changing sequences of activity during episodes of experience. “We call it ‘episodic time’ to emphasize that this is not ‘clock time,’ ” he said. “I still do think we have to call it something. It doesn’t really help us a lot to call it ‘rates of change’ ” (Chen 2019).

Chen, Ingfei. 2018. ‘The Neurons that Tell Time.’ The New Yorker. December 3, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/science/elements/the-neurons-that-tell-time.


David Prerau describes the international standardisation of time, according to Greenwich mean time, as the first artificial adjustment to natural sun time. This artificialisation of time is said to have been globally systematised via various technologies, including time balls, and the calculation of longitudinal and latitudinal grids. 

Due to the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit and the tilt of its axis, the time from one day’s local noon to the following day’s local noon can be somewhat more or less than twenty-four clock-hours, depending on the day of the year. For example, the time on an accurate clock can be ahead of the local sun time as shown on a sundial by as much as fourteen minutes in mid-February and can lag behind sun time by as much as sixteen minutes in early November. In fact, there are only four days of the year when the clock and the sun completely agree. The difference between sun time and clock time, called the equation of time, was originally calculated in about 1670 by John Flamsteed, Britain’s first royal astronomer.

Given the regularity of the clock and the irregularity of the observed sun, a perfectly accurate clock would have to be reset each day at noon. To avoid this, cities and towns began to set their clocks on the basis of mean time: the length of a meantime day is defined as the average length of all the days of the year. Mean time (or mean solar time) was the first artificial adjustment made to natural sun time.

Guns, bells, and time balls.

Mean time was first instituted in Geneva, Switzerland in 1780, and eventually most cities and towns followed suit. Even after mean local time was generally adopted, however, there was still the problem of keeping the population of a large city or region synchronized. Although more accurate clocks and watches were produced, as the nineteenth century progressed, they still could drift several minutes a day. Mean local time could be determined with the greatest precision by astronomical observatories that tracked clock stars, stars that appeared overhead each night at predictable times. In an effort to keep clocks and watches accurate, observatory time was often announced by firing a gun or ringing a bell each day at a designated hour or by dropping a time ball.

Time balls were large metal spheres that were dropped each day from a prominent building or tower at a precise time, often twelve noon. The exact time was relayed by telegraph from a nearby observatory. Time balls were first used to signal a precise time to ships at harbor, so each ship could set its chronometer accurately without having to send someone ashore. The Royal Greenwich Observatory began dropping a daily time ball as early as 1833. Soon a time ball was in use in many cities, so that at the designated hour observers at numerous vantage points could set their clocks to the accurate local observatory time. Thus the daily drop of the time ball fostered a uniform time for everyone in the area. A vestige of this practice is the illuminated ball dropped in New York City’s Times Square at exactly midnight each New Year’s Eve.

The use of mean local sun time and devices such as time balls allowed residents of each town or city to be synchronized, but there still was no coordination of times between different cities and regions. To understand how such a system might be possible, we need to consider that the relative sun times of two places is determined by their location on the globe. The ancient Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, was the first to imagine superimposing a grid on the earth’s surface; his grid consisted of 360 lines (corresponding to the degrees of a circle) connecting the North and South Poles at right angles to the equator, and 180 equally spaced lines circling the earth parallel to the equator. The lines running between the Poles indicated a location’s longitude, and the lines parallel to the equator indicated its latitude. The lines of longitude were later called meridians, from the Latin meridies (midday), because all places on the same meridian had local noon, when the sun is at its highest point, at the same time.

Latitude is measured north or south from the equator. For longitude, however, there is no obvious starting point. Therefore it is measured east or west from some designated line of longitude, and this is called the prime meridian. Up to the end of the nineteenth century, almost every major nation based its maps for land delineation and ship navigation upon its own defined prime meridian of longitude, usually the meridian through its capital city. Britain’s prime meridian went through London, Portugal’s through Lisbon, France’s through Paris, Russia’s through St. Petersburg, and the United States’ through Washington, D.C. To allow precise determination of longitude, the specific location of the prime meridian was usually located at an astronomical observatory in or near the capital city: the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Greenwich, England, just outside London; the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.; and the Pulkovo Observatory near St. Petersburg.

As the earth rotates, the sun appears to traverse fifteen degrees of longitude in one hour. Thus, each degree of longitude to the west, local noon occurs four minutes later. Consequently, any two cities not on the same meridian would have their clocks set at different times, depending on how many degrees their longitudes separate them. Even though each town determined its time independently, the worldwide system of local times worked quite effectively for several centuries. As long as travel and communications were relatively slow, it didn’t much matter that, for instance, in the United States when it was 12:00 noon in Chicago it was 12:31 in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:17 in Toledo, 12:13 in Cincinnati, 12:09 in Louisville, 12:07 in Indianapolis, 11:50 in St. Louis, 11:48 in Dubuque, 11:39 in St. Paul, and 11:27 in Omaha. The relaxed pace of travel, the lack of instant communications, the inherent inaccuracy of contemporary clocks, and the less frantic pace of life all made minor time variations unimportant.

But then came the Industrial Revolution (Prerau 2005, 53-57).

Prerau, David. 2005. Seize the daylight: The curious and contentious story of daylight saving time. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.


When daylight saving time was proposed to Winston Churchill by William Willett, the policy was described by Churchill as representing another form of an artificial time under which humans already live. The distinction is made between all forms of artificial, humanly-conceived, time, and a real or natural temporality.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, speaking early in the debate, said we should not begin lying in these matters. In these matters the country had begun lying a long time ago. When the local time, which varies in different parts of the country, was made a uniform time for the whole country, a great departure from the truth was undoubtedly made. You created a standard of artificial time, and we have long lived under that standard. Sidereal time is not solar time. Natural time is not solar time, solar time is not Greenwich time. Clock time never corresponds with the sun time, except on the meridian and on particular days in the year. National time is not local time, and when those who are in favour of this Bill are represented with departing from the true time, I am bound to say we may naturally ask not only what is truth but what is time? I venture to think that it is not very easy to discover ultimate sanction for any human or temporal arrangement. It is probable our arrangements about time have been fixed in the past mainly with regard to supposed convenience, and that they are conventional arrangements, to be governed by what we think is convenient for our general habits. Therefore, this Bill does not propose a change from natural time to artificial time, but only to substitute a convenient standard of artificial time for an inconvenient standard of artificial time (Churchill 1909, cc1777).

Churchill, Winston. 1909. “Daylight saving bill.” Hansard 1803-2005 – Commons sitting. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.


Anthony Aveni observes different ways in which human constructions of time artificially regulate celestial patterns and biological rhythms. This is described as a human intervention to nature’s heartbeat, and a manipulation of something that exists beyond human culture.

Time systems became more complex and ornate as an economy and its attending bureaucracy grew and diversified. In China and Europe, mechanical clocks replaced sundials. We slowly began to manipulate nature’s direct input into the timekeeping process for our own benefit. Intercalation was one of the first steps toward human intervention, an insertion of society’s time into celestial time. Thus, we make the year complete by improving upon nature where we believe it has failed.

In a sense, the Maya did to the Venus cycle what medieval Christendom did to the sun cycle. The Venus table in the Dresden Codex tampers with time and reduces it to a cultural creation based on minor variations in nature’s harmonic heartbeat which can be detected only by careful listening and close observation. In bureaucratic societies, human actors take over both nature’s script writing and directingThe modern mass production of timepieces – with their artificial hours, minutes, and seconds – symbolizes the extent of our singleminded struggle to exercise control over that ghostly mechanical entity we imagine to be jogging alongside us, as close as a shadow but uninfluenced by the way we behave. When you say you are strapped for time, perhaps you are only expressing your frustration at the way you have become enslaved to that oscillating chip you carry about on your wrist.

Human culture emerges as the great processor of time. Like the rest of the biological world, our ancestors began by sensing the orderly biorhythms of natural time-the beat of the tides, the coming of the rains, the on-and-off stroboscopic flickering of the full moon’s light, the comings and goings of swallows, locusts, and the red tide. Unlike the New Haven oysters that relocated in Evanston, somewhere back in the distant past we became impatient and dissatisfied. We grabbed hold of the controls; we changed the order. We manipulated time, developed and enhanced it, processed, compressed, and packaged it into a crazyquilt patchwork to conform to our perceived needs: greater efficiency in dividing up the day means more earning power for both the corporate head and his workers; greater precision in Olympic timing makes for a better Reebok sneaker; and strategic positioning of daylight-saving time gives us more rest and recreation, and that leads to a longer personal time line (Aveni 1989, 336-37).

Aveni, Anthony. 1989. Empires of time: Calendars, clocks, and cultures. New York: Basic Books.


Joshua Keating reports that not all territories have always been interested in adopting a standardised social time. The U.S. national time is provided as an example of this, in which the railroad network demanded a country-wide common clock, despite cities such as Cincinnati wanting to remain with a more natural time.

We measure time not simply in terms of minutes and seconds, but in terms of concepts such as “early,” “late” – or, for that matter, “fashionably late.” What is the length of a “work day”? In the United States, Europe and Japan you’ll get three different answers.

Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance, if not outright resistance. Historically, countries have not eagerly embraced the global clock—they’ve felt compelled to do so because of the demands of commerce.

The U.S. national time standard, for instance, didn’t emerge until 1883, when it was adopted by the railroads, which needed to maintain common timetables. Before that, cities largely kept their own local time, and many were not happy to have big government and big railroads force standardization on them. “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,” editorialized one newspaper when the changeover was going into effect (Keating 2013).

Keating, Joshua. 2013. “Why time is a social construct.” Smithsonian.com. January 2013. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-time-is-a-social-construct-16 4139110/


Robert Coolman traces the historical division of time into minutes and seconds to ancient forms of calculation, as well as to later improvements in the measurement of activity in the sky. The distinction is raised between the constancy of visible celestial movements, versus the technological contingencies underpinning the developing representations of such movements.

For millennia, ancient civilizations looked to the sky to measure the big units of time. There’s the year, which is the time it takes Earth to complete one orbit around the sun; the month, which is approximately how long it takes the moon to orbit our planet; the week, which is approximately the time between the four phases of the moon; and the day, which is the duration of one rotation of the Earth’s on its axis. Dividing the day was not so straightforward, though hours and minutes have their origins in traditions tracing back thousands of years…The use of 60 began with the Sumerians who used different number systems. While you and I write numbers using base 10, or “decimal” this civilization used base 12 (“duodecimal”) and base 60 (“sexigesimal”)…Medieval astronomers were first to apply sexigesimal values to time. The 11th-century Persian scholar Al-Bīrūnī tabulated times of new moons on specific dates in hours, 60ths (minutes), 60ths of 60ths (seconds)…Minutes and seconds, however, were not used for everyday timekeeping for several centuries. Mechanical clocks first appeared in Europe during the late 14th century, but with only one hand, following the design of sundials and water clocks…astronomers of the 16th century began physically realizing minutes and seconds with the construction of improved clocks with minute and second hands in order to improve measurements of the sky (Coolman 2014).

Coolman, Robert. 2014. “Keeping time: Why 60 minutes.” Live science. April 19 2014.  https://www.livescience.com/44964-why-60-minutes-in-an-hour.html


Jay Griffiths characterises Western, hegemonic time, as inherently anti-natural, and as that which is imposed on cultures. A challenge to this dominant form of time is said to manifest through the various time structures of indigenous populations, which are portrayed as being more natural than the time which has developed from the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution created time-owners; the capitalist factory bosses, erecting clock-bound fences of work-time and the sense that employers owned the time of their employees, enslaving their time, enclosing it. Stealthily, nastily, one type of time has grown horribly dominant: Western, Christian, linear, abstract, clock-dominated, work-oriented, coercive, capitalist, masculine and anti-natural: Hegemonic Time. This time, and all the time-values which go with it, have been imposed on numerous cultures across the world. (When missionaries arrived the Algonquin people of North America called clock-time ‘Captain Clock’ because it seemed to command every act for the Christians.)

There is revolt. The challenge to Hegemonic Time has come from the radiant variety of times understood by indigenous peoples; from self-conscious political protest; from children’s dogged insistence on living in a stretchy eternity; from women’s blood and from carnival.

Subversive and mischievous, carnival reverses the norms, overturns the usual hierarchies. Unlike Hegemonic Time, carnival is usually tied to nature’s time; it is ahistoric, linked to cyclic, frequently seasonal events. Carnival transforms work-time to playtime, reverses the status quo. It is frequently earthy and sexual (Griffiths 2002).

Griffiths, Jay. 2002, ‘Boo to captain clock.’ New Internationalist 343(March): 14-17.


Kevin Birth argues that the human knowledge of time is not associated with celestial movements. Instead, the knowledge that humans have of time is embedded within culturally diversified objects and tools, which distantly represent celestial movements.

The study of objects of time is the study of cognition and culture, but not of the sort limited to the mind or to a simpleminded notion of cultural boundaries. For most clock users, the logics used to determine the time are outside of their knowledge but within the objects. These logics have an artifactual existence that mediates between consciousness and the world—part of what Cole describes as the “special characteristics of human mental life” as “the characteristics of an organism that can inhabit, transform, and recreate an artifact-mediated world” (1995, 32). When one wants to know what time it is, one does not calculate it, but simply refers to a clock or watch. When one wants to know the date, one consults a calendar rather than observes the Sun, Moon, and stars. This placement of temporal logics in artifacts clearly forms a feature of humans that is quite different from anything shared with any other animal—not only do humans make tools, and not only do humans have knowledge far beyond what animals exhibit, but humans place this knowledge in tools. The cultural diversity of concepts of time is closely related to the fusion of diverse ideas and artifacts used to think. Whereas my examples so far are the clock and the calendar, the use of objects to mediate time is not new. Objects related to time are among some of the most famous in the archaeological record, for example, Stonehenge, the Aztec calendar, and the Antikythera Mechanism (Birth 2012, 9).

Birth, Kevin. 2012. Objects of time: How things shape temporality. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.


Daniel Boorstin posits that by marking time according to distinct parts, humans were freed from the cyclical nature of the world. Humanity’s liberation from a repetitive natural condition, via the various conceptions of time, is further claimed to have conditioned the first communities of shared human knowledge.

The first grand discovery was time, the landscape of experience. Only by marking off months, weeks, and years, days and hours, minutes and seconds, would mankind be liberated from the cyclical monotony of nature. The flow of shadows, sand, and water, and time itself, translated into the clock’s staccato, became a useful measure of man’s movements across the planet. The discoveries of time and of space would become one continuous dimension. Communities of time would bring the first communities of knowledge, ways to share discovery, a common frontier on the unknown (Boorstin 1985, 1).

Boorstin, Daniel. 1985. The discoverers. New York: Random House Inc.


Keiichiro Fujisaki portrays a clock, which graphically represents the regions of the world which are concurrently either in sunlight or shadow, as a recognition of the difference between natural time and artificial time. Whilst natural time is indicated by the sun, artificial time is said to be illustrated by the time zones.

In the morning, the birds all begin to sing in unison.

The passage of time is different from country to country and region to region. Different cities may be in the same time zone, but as the clock strikes seven in the morning, some may already be experiencing bright daylight, while in others the sun may not even have risen. Earth Clock affords a sweeping view of these various times around the globe. Yoshiaki Nishimura of Living World explains:

“Despite the fact that it’s as broad as the U.S. (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) when measured from east to west, China employs the same standard time throughout the country. The time difference between India and Japan is 3 hours 30 minutes, but the time difference between here and Nepal is 3 hours 15 minutes. Time differences of 15 or 30 minutes are used by certain countries to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, so in a sense they can be referred to as time borders. So among other things, time is a political tool.”

Indeed. I remember hearing stories about how at the western extremity of China the Sun would be directly overhead at three in the afternoon. The terminator marches on regardless of things like manmade national borders and standard time zones. Says Nishimura, “I had in mind the question, What would time be like without the influence of time in industrialized societies?” So Earth Clock was born out of a recognition of the contrast between artificial time and natural time.

“In the morning, the birds all begin to sing in unison as the terminator passes. On the opposite side of the globe, the sunset side, dogs start barking and crows return to their nests. Although in the cities, which increasingly operate around the clock, we live according to artificially designated time with little regard for whether it is day or night, the world at large is overwhelmingly governed by natural time. The terminator turns relentlessly like a music box. Frogs start to croak and birds start to sing. I find this kind of thing fascinating, and I’d always wanted to express this somehow in my work” (Fujisaki 2007).

Fujisaki, Keiichiro. 2007. “Natural time, artificial time: Earth Clock Report Part 1: Living World.” Living world. 14 January 2007. http://www.livingworld.net/blog/fujisaki-2/