From the Dynamic Structure of the Brain to the Emergence of Time Experiences

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Time perception remains an open question in cognitive neurosciences. Mechanisms for the encoding of time come in different flavors but the evidence remain sparse for the simplest questions, for instance, which areas in the brain constitute the most reliable sources for the encoding of time? Indeed, not one brain lesion in the cortex can account on its own for a total impairment in timing functions. The aim of this contribution is to highlight key concepts in the history of cognitive neurosciences that are relevant to the study of time perception. An alternative or a complementary approach to the classic clock model view is provided regarding ways in which the brain could automatically encode temporal properties.


Journal for the Study of Time



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  • Schematic illustration of Jeffress’ Place Theory of Auditory Spatial Localization (1948). Coincidence detectors of phase-delays between the left and right auditory inputs encode the spatial position of an auditory source, transforming temporal information on the microseconds scale into a place code.
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  • Processing streams in cortex. In white and gray, the dual-stream (or “what”/ “where” pathways) proposed by Ungerleider and Haxby (1994) and the analogous dichotomy described in the auditory system (Rauscheker and Tian 2000). In black, the recently suggested “when” pathway (Batelli et al. 2008). A: auditory cortex; V: visual cortex; MT: middle temporal (also known as V5); STG: superior temporal gyrus; TPJ: temporo-parietal junction.
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  • Clock model hypothesis. Three major components constitute the clock: a pacemaker, an accumulator or counter and a comparator.
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  • Implementation of the clock model hypothesis as “cortico-striatal beat frequency model” (adapted from Buhusi & Meck 2005). This model implies a centralized clock of reference and has received a substantial amount of evidence for interval timing (above the second range). BG: basal ganglia; GPe: globus pallidus external segment; GPi: globus pallidus internal segment; PPC: posterior partietal cortex; PFC: prefrontal cortex; SMA: supplementary motor area; SNR: substantia nigra pars reticulata; SNC: substantia nigra pars compacta; Th: thalamus.
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  • Mesoscopic observations of brain function. Electro- and magnetoencephalography (EEG, MEG) record non-invasively the extracellular electric and associated magnetic flux of thousands of neurons originating in the dendritic arborization of pyramidal cortical cells. Local Field Potentials (LFPs) are comparable signals. Action potentials generated at the single neuron level originate from the differences of electrical charges in and out of the cellular milieu.
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  • Hippocampal cell assemblies (adapted from Buszàki, 2010). The response profile of five cell assemblies (P1-P5) are here depicted with different shades of grey. Each cell assembly is tuned to five different positions (1-5) in a maze. When the rat passes one of those locations (e.g. 2), neurons of the corresponding cell assembly (e.g. P2) maximally fire. In other words, cells in P2 code for position 2. More interestingly, the time at which maximal firing takes place in one assembly (e.g. P1) with respect to another (e.g. P2) appears to be tightly related to the time it takes the rat to go from one location (1) to another location (2) in the maze. Specifically, as the rat moves across the maze, the cell assembly tuned to the location that the rat is about to pass starts firing earlier in time with respect to the ongoing theta oscillation. Hence, the position of the maximal firing in the cell assembly encodes the location of the rat with respect to the ongoing temporal reference frame provided by the theta oscillation.
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