What is the most important function of the human brain? Well, one takeaway from this lively book on that beloved organ is that it enables us “to predict and prepare for the future.”
Futurity, predestination, affordances: heady matters, indeed. But, at a more genial level of questioning, why does time fly when we’re having fun? It moves, after all, at the same relentless pace as it does when we’re experiencing misery. The answer lies in perception: when we’re in the midst of something grueling, unpleasant, or dull, we think obsessively about how long it’s taking. On the other hand, writes UCLA neuroscientist Buonomano (Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives, 2011), “as they unfold, interesting and engaging activities seem to fly by, in part because we are not thinking about time.” Whether not thinking about time will make that airport delay any more tolerable may depend on other variables, but the point remains: for humans, governed by internal clocks rather than the ultraprecise atomic time scale that machines and economies depend on, time’s passage is all about how we perceive it to be moving. Buonomano examines, for instance, the “slow-motion effect” in which time seems to slow to a crawl, as when, in his case, he suffered a bad car crash. He considers such events by means of competing hypotheses, one of which bears the suggestive name “metaillusion,” and none of which undermines the larger point about perception. The author observes that almost every region of the brain is implicated to some extent in our ability to keep time, such that “most neural circuits are intrinsically able to keep time if needed.” Writing in eminently accessible prose that is nonetheless backed by some fiercely hard-edged science, Buonomano also looks at a few thorny philosophical and epistemological problems through the lens of time, considering, for instance, whether free will is not really a matter of timing in decision-making.
Fascinating throughout and a pleasing vehicle by which to think about thinking—and the passing hours.