Has anyone ever told you to stop living in the past? People say this to one another all the time, but the thing is we can’t stop living in the past. To be clear, I’m not talking about pulling out a pair of torn up jeans and a leather jacket for a night out, but rather, the very way we perceive the world. What you know as now is actually the world as it was about 80 milliseconds ago, about 0.08 seconds.
You see it takes a while for the brain to put everything together that you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste so that it all happens at the same time. Vision is actually the slowest of the senses, that’s why guns are used to start races at the Olympics, we “hear” before we “see”. In fact, the brain actually waits briefly to ensure that it has all possible information about what is going on before stitching it all together as “now”. Another way to put it is this, if you touch your nose and your toe at the same time you feel it at the same time even though it takes longer for the signal from your toe to reach your brain.
Why is this important? Well, because there are times that your brain can put things together in the wrong order. This can happen to anyone, especially in a lab where it is really easy to do. This can cause some very familiar symptoms, even in otherwise healthy people. In one study, participants controlled the activation of a light. By adjusting the delay between the press of a button when the light comes on, the researchers were able to effect the participant’s perception of cause and effect. In short, the person pressing the button and turning on the light became convinced someone else was turning on the light.
There is still more to learn about how the brain sorts out time and how that changes how we view the world. An understanding of this mechanism will lead to many new ways to look at, and new treatments for, many conditions that have been very difficult to care for.