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Time and perception

The human brain is a most wonderful organ: it is our window on time. Our brains have specialized structures that work together to give us our human sense of time. The temporal lobe helps form long-term memories, without which we would not be aware of the past, whilst the frontal lobe allows us to plan for the future. In addition, we have a powerful sense of the present, the enigmatic ‘moment of the now’, that generates the sensation that time ‘flows.’

But the brain is limited. It cannot handle all of the vast amount of information flooding in through our senses from our environment, so it takes shortcuts and makes approximations. It filters and redacts that data, simplifying it so as to best match pre-existing mental models of expectation. Some of these models will be of genetic origin and some will be conditioned by experience and education. The net result is that the world around us appears stable and consistent with a classical mechanical view of reality: we see objects and observe them moving around a relatively fixed spatial background. Generally, this is a most excellent and reliable model of a reality that we believe is ‘out there.’

But there is an enormous price to pay for this excellence: it is a lie, a complete fabrication. It is such a convincing deception that until about a hundred years or so ago, humans were completely taken in by that classical image of reality. What happened then was the discovery of the quantum. With sophisticated new technologies, scientists managed to prize open the lid of Pandora’s Box and catch a fleeting glimpse of processes that the brain had not been hitherto conditioned to model. And so the situation remains. Our brains have not caught up with the data, with the result that, to quote Feynman, “no one understands quantum mechanics.”

We remain victims of our evolutionary history. We are conditioned to see things in particular classical ways and it is enormously difficult to break free of them, to become converts to new ways of thinking. Of course, resistance to change is usually desirable, for two reasons. Firstly, change is another word for instability, which can be dangerous. Secondly, we should not be gullible to the extent that we believe everything we are told. But on the other hand, lack of change can be just as bad, because that is synonymous with stagnation.

Image credit: Wrist watch men's by Gadini. Public domain via Pixabay.
Image credit: Wrist watch men’s by Gadini. Public domain via Pixabay.

What can we do about it? How can we accommodate significant developments in science?

It seems to me that part of the solution is to try to understand how we think and not only what we think. We should at least be aware of the mental traps set for us by our conditioning. For example, is it reasonable to talk about elementary particles as being waves and particles, and then getting perplexed about that paradox? I think not. We should instead talk only about the signals that our detectors have picked up, because at the end of the day, that’s all we’ve got. Likewise, we should see through metaphysical imagery, such as the frequently stated idea that a particle takes two different paths simultaneously in a double slit experiment, and see such assertions for what they are: unprovable conjectures. Precision in our language is critical here, because our words represent our thoughts and the way that we understand things. For instance, it seems to me that quantum mechanics is not a theory of objects described as if they were wibbly-wobbly matter waves but it’s actually a mathematically based theory of entitlement, a theory that tells us what we can legitimately say in the laboratory, and it is no more than that. That these rules of entitlement do not match our classical, pre-conditioned expectations of reality is a commentary on our evolutionary history and not on the nature of reality.

I am by no means unique in my concern about the way that time and reality are debated: the rise of science and the scientific method can be attributed directly to this debate. For me, one of the most important historical developments was the rise of scientific societies during the seventeenth century. During an age when innocent people were being burned for alleged witchcraft, great thinkers attempted to throw off the shackles of conditioning and start to think in new ways. We would do well, in this day and age, to keep in mind the great motto of the Royal Society of London: Nullius in verba, which means “take no one’s word for it.”

This brings me back to my theme, time. It is an enigma experienced by everyone. It structures our lives, our thoughts, our experiences. We do so want to understand it, to comprehend it, that we will eagerly listen to any exciting conjecture about it, especially if it is presented to us in a slick way. And there’s the rub. How can we distinguish the sound theory from the fairy story, the good from the ‘not even wrong’? How do we know when we are being misled? Is every fanciful view of time legitimate, or can we see when we are being spun a baseless conjecture? It is my proposition that we can train ourselves to think more carefully about time. But that requires patience, and can be very painful.

Featured image credit: Time for a change by Brian Smithson. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Eric John Large

    Some people have written that time doesn’t exist, that there is only ‘now’.

  2. jean.lynen

    Time is abstract ,mathematical an always related to space and speed and there are no such a thing as gravitational waves ,no time waves

  3. Glen Canessa

    “Brain is our window on time” (it) give us “our human sense of time”

    But, if we don’t know what time is ¿what is the sense of these statements?

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