The Brain, Time & Speed
How Different Species Experience Time and Perceive High-speed Events
Recent research from Ireland and Scotland suggests that different organisms perceive time differently. Flies, for example, are four times faster than humans at detecting flickering light. Sounds rather like Cono, the protagonist of Performance Anomalies. In fact, the research cites tests similar to those Cono underwent at Stanford, including measurements of Cono’s ability to detect high-speed events. The Economist magazine gives us this summary:
“… an objective measure [of time] which probably correlates with subjective experience does exist. It is called the critical flicker-fusion frequency, or CFF, and it is the lowest frequency at which a flickering light appears to be a constant source of illumination. It measures, in other words, how fast an animal’s eyes can refresh an image and thus process information. For people, the average CFF is 60 hertz (ie, 60 times a second). This is why the refresh-rate on a television screen is usually set at that value. Dogs have a CFF of 80Hz, which is probably why they do not seem to like watching television. To a dog a TV programme looks like a series of rapidly changing stills.
“Having the highest possible CFF would carry biological advantages, because it would allow faster reaction to threats and opportunities. Flies, which have a CFF of 250Hz, are notoriously difficult to swat. A rolled up newspaper that seems to a human to be moving rapidly appears to them to be travelling through treacle.”
Faster reaction to threats and opportunities… sounds like exactly why Cono is so highly sought after.
The research is by Kevin Healy, Luke McNally, Graeme D. Ruxton, Natalie Cooper and Andrew L. Jackson; relevant links are:
Maybe We’re all As Fast As Cono (When We Sleep)
Cono’s brain has a much faster processing speed than that of neurotypicals, so he can perceive the details of fleeting events much more clearly, and he can react with astonishing speed. Sounds way out there, right? But a few years ago researchers reported in the journal Science that during sleep, memories of real-time experiences are processed by the brain at a higher speed than while awake—six to seven times faster.
In the researchers’ own words:
“We found that, during sleep, reactivation of spatiotemporal patterns was coherent across the network and compressed in time by a factor of 6 to 7. Thus, when behavioral constraints are removed, the brain’s intrinsic processing speed may be much faster than it is in real time.”
Here are two links on the findings:
The physicians who examined Cono speculated that his brain makes abnormal use of the amygdala in routing extremely fast signals for sensation and response. For more on the amygdala, try:
The estimable and enlightening Dr. Oliver Sacks delved into many strange aspects of human time perception that are relevant to Cono’s highly unusual nervous system. Especially in the following New Yorker article, in which he noted that the reaction times of Tourette’s patients can be much faster than those of neuro-typicals:
Researching How the Brain Represents Time
Professor David Eagleman and his collaborators are using several experimental techniques to probe how the brain represents time, with many surprising results that might elucidate the origins of Cono’s aberrant neurophysiology. Here is a synopsis of Dr. Eagleman’s research avenues:
Early Studies of “Mind Time”
Professor Benjamin Libet was a pioneer in the exploration of human consciousness; some of his findings are described in his book Mind Time, The Temporal Factor in Consciousness. “Most notably, Libet’s experiments reveal a substantial delay — the ‘mind time’ of the title — before any awareness affects how we view our mental activities.” He probably would have liked to study Cono and his strange temporal processing. Here is a more detailed description of the book:
Unconscious Brain Mechanisms
There are several instances in Performance Anomalies in which Cono’s actions arise from somewhere outside his own awareness. Indeed, the role of the unconscious mind surfaces several times in the novel. Fortunately there are new scientific techniques that have opened up the unconscious to rigorous investigation. Leonard Mlodinow presents many of the astonishing findings in Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behaviour, reviewed here in The Economist:
Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception
Cono’s accelerated nervous system gives him an altered perception of time, which sometimes fails him, as when he is trying to count the seconds until his friend Bulat is supposed to throw a grenade to help save Xiao Li. But even normal humans experience wide variations in their perceptions of time. In her book Time Warped, Claudia Hammond surveys the neuroscience, psychology and biology behind how we experience time, with many surprising findings. Here is a review by Maria Popova:
Cono 7Q’s brain clock is super fast, but this chimpanzee is his rival in the real world
Ayumu is a young chimpanzee who lives at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan. As The Economist reports, “Researchers have been teaching Ayumu a memory task in which a random pattern of numbers appears fleetingly on a touchscreen before being covered by electronic squares. Ayumu has to touch the on-screen squares in the same order as the numbers hidden beneath them. Humans get the test right most of the time if there are five numbers and 500 milliseconds or so in which to study them. With nine numbers, or less time, the human success rate declines sharply. Show Ayumu nine numbers flashed up for just 60 milliseconds and he will nonchalantly tap out the numbers in the right order with his knuckles.” Watch Ayumu in this BBC video, humbling normal humans but perhaps not Cono 7Q: