Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Paradox

The human brain can't tell time accurately said a major article in today's New York Times Science section. It cited the experiences we all have had of sometimes thinking only a little time has passed when we are deeply involved in a task, only to find it's been a much longer time than we thought. On the other hand time seems to crawl when we're bored or anxious. There were more sophisticated examples of how we feel we spent much time when we've done many things in a year, or that it a year passes suddenly when it seems nothing much happened that year. Many permutation, including some often cited experiments of people living for weeks in caves with no external stimuli who thought six weeks had actually been four, and whose circadian rhythms had adjusted to longer than 24 hour days.

This morning I awoke when my bedside clock said 5:56. I turned on my clock radio that was going to come on at 6:00. This is relevant because I realized a couple days ago that the last time I reset the clock -- because I accidentally unplugged it -- I set it about four minutes slow. It is set to come on at 6:00 so I can hear the the very short news broadcast on the local classical music station. I especially want to hear the temperature and weather forecast.

For a very long time I've been aware that I can wake myself when I need to; and this even extends to waking myself just before a wake up call when I'm traveling even if I've traveled six or eight time zones the previous day. I don't know how my brain adjusts and tells the local time -- it's a great mystery. So is having found my eyes open at 5:56 this morning when it really didn't make much difference whether I heard that forecast or not, I wasn't going anywhere anyway. What's my brain doing and why? Damned if I know. I'm just quietly amazed that people who I take to be serious scientists are still muddling around and don't really have any answers to how we experience time.


Kass said...

I think we have a built-in circadian rhythm. You just happen to have a more finely-tuned one.

standing on my head said...

i, too, awake before the alarm, always. and i can tell the time within a few minutes, always.
time, and its flow, seems built into me.
the buddhists have known more about the brain, and how we experience things, for thousands of years. our scientists may, at some point, catch up.

Gabriela Abalo said...

It is something that also happen to me, no matter where in the world I'm I always wake up before the alarm clock attempt to do so. When I got to bed I know I will wake up exactly 5 or 10 minutes before the set time.
If we apply the concept that time does not exist and that we do leave in parallel dimensions, we could then try to explain it by saying that the “other me” is the one that wake me up when is “time” for me to get back to this dimension ;-)
Who knows, as you well said a very interesting paradox.