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.


James Gleick posits that the world should remove its various time zones, given the confusions they cause. Instead, it is argued that our timings should reflect how our biological clocks obey solar movements, a permanence that is in contradistinction to the arbitrary, changeable constitution, of numerical, clocked times.

The time-zone map is a hodgepodge — a jigsaw puzzle by Dalí. Logically you might assume there are 24, one per hour. You would be wrong. There are 39, crossing and overlapping, defying the sun, some offset by 30 minutes or even 45, and fluctuating on the whims of local satraps.

Let us all — wherever and whenever — live on what the world’s timekeepers call Coordinated Universal Time, or U.T.C. (though “earth time” might be less presumptuous). When it’s noon in Greenwich, Britain, let it be 12 everywhere. No more resetting the clocks. No more wondering what time it is in Peoria or Petropavlovsk. Our biological clocks can stay with the sun, as they have from the dawn of history. Only the numerals will change, and they have always been arbitrary…

People forget how recent is the development of our whole ungainly apparatus. A century and a half ago, time zones didn’t exist. They were a consequence of the invention of railroads. At first they were neither popular nor easy to understand. When New York reset its clocks to railway time on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1883, this newspaper explained the messy affair as follows:

“When the reader of The Times consults his paper at 8 o’clock this morning at his breakfast table it will be 9 o’clock in St. John, New Brunswick, 7 o’clock in Chicago, or rather in St. Louis — for Chicago authorities have refused to adopt the standard time, perhaps because the Chicago meridian was not selected as the one on which all time must be based — 6 o’clock in Denver, Col., and 5 o’clock in San Francisco. That is the whole story in a nut-shell.”

Geoincidence that H. G. Wells invented his time machine then, nor that Einstein developed his theory of relativity soon after. With everything so unsettled, Germany created Sommerzeit, “summer time,” as daylight saving time is still called in Europe.

“There was much talk of relative time, physiological time, subjective time and even compressible time,” wrote the French novelist Marcel Aymé in “The Problem of Summer Time,” a 1943 time-travel story. “It became obvious that the notion of time, as our ancestors had transmitted it down the millennia, was in fact absurd claptrap” (Gleick 2016).

Gleick, James (2016). ‘Time to dump time zones.’ New York Times, November 5, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/06/opinion/sunday/time-to-dump-time-zones.html.