David Eagleman on the mysteries of the brain

April 20, 2011

Regarding how the brain processes and assimilates information from the various senses, Eagleman says:

[T]he brain needs time to get its story straight. It gathers up all the evidence of our senses, and only then reveals it to us. […]

Reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully censored before it reaches us. Living in the past may seem like a disadvantage, but it's a cost that the brain is willing to pay. It's trying to put together the best possible story about what's going on in the world, and that takes time."

On our perception of time:

"Time is this rubbery thing," Eagleman said. "It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, 'Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,' it shrinks up."

As ever, I'm fascinated not only with the theories, but also with how the theories are put to the test. Eagleman came up with an ingenious method of examining the theory that our perception of time is altered greatly by our being in an incredibly scary or stressful situation (i.e., we tend to laser-focus and time seems to nearly stop):

The unit could be strapped to a subject's wrist, where it would flash a number at a rate just beyond the threshold of perception. If time slowed down, Eagleman reasoned, the number would become visible. Now he just needed a good, life-threatening situation.

For those curious, he found that situation in a suspended catch air device (SCAD) (which I kind of want to try).

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