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.