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Our brains "bend time" to adapt and keep up with life's rhythm

Scientists have made progress in understanding how the brain processes time, potentially rewriting the narrative on neural flexibility and cognitive function

The research, led by Professor Arkarup Banerjee in the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, focused on the vocalizations of Alston’s singing mouse from Costa Rica, offers profound insights into how our brains may bend the perception of time to adapt to varying circumstances.

This phenomenon could have far-reaching implications across numerous fields including technology, education, and therapy.

The rhythm of life

Life’s rhythm is inherently unpredictable, oscillating between moments that seem to sprint past and those that trudge along.

Humans exhibit a remarkable ability to adapt to these temporal shifts, whether it’s keeping up the rhythm of a conversation or matching the pace of a busy crowd. 

The enigma of how the brain orchestrates these adjustments has long puzzled scientists.

“There are many instances where we have to do the same action but at different tempos. So the question is, how does the brain do it,” said Professor Banerjee. 

Alston’s singing mouse

The study’s focus on Alston’s singing mouse, a species known for its distinctive, human-audible vocalizations, provides a unique window into the neural mechanics of temporal processing. 

These mice communicate through songs that vary in length and tempo, making them ideal subjects for investigating how neural circuits might govern the flexibility of timing in vocalization.

Temporal scaling 

By simulating duets with these mice and analyzing activity in the orofacial motor cortex (OMC), Professor Banerjee and his team observed a phenomenon they termed “temporal scaling.”

Unlike a clock that measures absolute time, OMC neurons appear to encode relative time, dynamically adjusting the interval between vocalizations. 

“Instead of encoding absolute time like a clock, the neurons track something like relative time,” explained Professor Banerjee. “They actually slow down or speed up the interval. So, it’s not like one or two seconds, but 10%, 20%.”

Adjusting the perception of brain time 

This discovery not only sheds light on how the brain modulates vocal communication but also suggests a broader principle of neural operation.

The ability to adjust the perception of time could be a fundamental aspect of how the brain processes various sensory and motor tasks, offering a glimpse into the intricate mechanisms that allow for the flexibility and adaptability of behaviors.

“It’s this three-pound block of flesh that allows you to do everything from reading a book to sending people to the moon,” said Professor Banerjee.

“It provides us with flexibility. We can change on the fly. We adapt. We learn. If everything was a stimulus-response, with no opportunity for learning, nothing that changes, no long-term goals, we wouldn’t need a brain. We believe the cortex exists to add flexibility to behavior.”

Study implications 

The implications of the study are vast, opening up new avenues for exploring how our brains enable us to navigate the world. 

“These results provide a framework for studying hierarchical control circuits, a common design principle across many natural and artificial systems,” wrote the researchers.

From enhancing educational methods to developing therapeutic interventions for neurological disorders, the potential applications of understanding how the brain bends time are as limitless as the human imagination

How the brain perceives time

The human brain perceives time through a complex interplay of various regions, rather than through a single “time center.”

This perception is a result of the brain’s processing of continuous information from the external environment and its internal states.

Key regions

At the core of time perception are the basal ganglia and the cerebellum, which are believed to play critical roles in processing temporal information, such as the duration of events. 

The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning and anticipating future events, which is essential for our sense of the passage of time.

Additionally, the hippocampus, known for its role in memory formation, allows us to place events in a temporal sequence, creating a coherent narrative of our past.

Influential factors

Time perception can be influenced by various factors, including attention, emotion, and the nature of the task at hand.

For example, when we are focused on a task that is engaging, time may seem to pass more quickly, a phenomenon often referred to as “time flies when you’re having fun.” Conversely, when we are bored or waiting anxiously, time can seem to drag.

Moreover, individual differences in time perception highlight the subjective nature of time. Factors such as age, cognitive abilities, and even cultural background can influence how one perceives the duration of events.

Time duration and the brain

Neuroscientific research has also shown that the brain can encode short and long durations differently, with different mechanisms and regions involved in the milliseconds to seconds range compared to hours to days. 

The perception of very short durations, for example, is thought to involve sensory and motor systems, while longer durations involve more cognitive processes, such as memory and attention.

The study is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience


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