On the Limits of Time in the Brain

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J.T. Fraser used to emphasize the uniqueness of the human brain in its capacity for apprehending the various dimensions of “nootemporality” (Fraser 1982 and 1987). Indeed, our brain allows us to sense the flow of time, to measure delays, to remember past events or to predict future outcomes. In these achievements, the human brain reveals itself far superior to its animal counterpart. Women and men are the only beings, I believe, who are able to think about what they will do the next day. This is because such a thought implies three intellectual abilities that are proper to mankind: the capacity to take their own thoughts as objects of their thinking, the ability of mental time travels—to the past thanks to their episodic memory or to the future—and the possibility to project very far into the future, as a consequence of their enlarged and complexified forebrain. But there are severe limits to our timing abilities of which we are often unaware. Our sensibility to the passing time, like other of our intellectual abilities, is often competing with other brain functions, because they use at least in part the same neural networks. This is particularly the case regarding attention. The deeper the level of attention required, the looser is our perception of the flow of time. When we pay attention to something, when we fix our attention, then our inner sense of the flux of time freezes. This limitation should not sound too unfamiliar to the reader of J.T. Fraser who wrote in his book Time, Conflict, and Human Values (1999) about “time as a nested hierarchy of unresolvable conflicts.”

On the Limits of Time in the Brain

in KronoScope



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  • View in gallery
    A partial map of the brain areas involved in attention. At left, a view of the right side of the central fissure, obtained through a sagittal cut of the brain, is displayed. At right, a left lateral view of the cortex. A: reticular formation of the brain stem; B: thalamus; C: pulvinar; D: cingulate cortex; E: parietal cortex; F: mediofrontal cortex; G: dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In the background, the numbers refer to the Brodmann’s nomenclature for cortical areas.
  • View in gallery
    The darkest areas in this map of the inner brain show the additional metabolic activity of nerve tissues in 16 adult subjects involved in attention tasks, using the magnetic resonance technique (RMI). A: attention is appealed to; the subject is in an alert state. This situation entails a clear activation of the thalamus, probably essentially from the pulvinar. B: the subject’s attention is oriented toward a target. The orientation phase entails in particular an activation of several areas of the parietal cortex as well as certain infracortical areas. Figure adapted from Raz and Buhle 2006.
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    Activity of an inferotemporal cell of a monkey performing a task requiring his visual working memory. A: The test begins when the upper colored spot is lit; the monkey should memorize its color (green or red)—which color is changed at random at each successive test. B: In light gray, the histogram of the rate of discharge of the cell during a test not requiring memorizing the color of the spot. In dark gray, the supplementary activity observed during the task when the monkey memorizes it precisely during the 16 s period of memorization. After the second presentation of colored spots, as soon as it is no longer necessary that the monkey keeps in mind the color of the original spot, the rate of discharge returns to its base line. Figure adapted from J. Fuster et al. 1997.


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