Our Brain is a Time Machine

Why is it that time seems to go faster when you are having fun? That the notion of time is not always perceived as being the same for each situation? In this thought provoking talk, Physicist Carlo Rovelli takes us on a journey where he explains the inherent nature of time. Weaving in research from visionaries within physics, philosophy and art, Rovelli comes to the conclusion that time should be studied in its relationship to what it means to us.



The Brain is a Time Machine

To the human experience, time is not emotionally neutral to us. We can perceive time because our brain has the ability to remember the past. It is our memories that give us a sense of the past and present and our ability to anticipate, what gives us our sense of the future. However, because of this emotional aspect we have with time, we are not able to see time’s true nature.



Time is Relative

But what does this mean? Isn’t time fixed? Something that can be measured? That rather than being a subjective experience, time ticks everywhere at a uniform rate? This notion we have of time, however is incorrect. Rovelli explains that clocks tick slower when they are in a stronger gravitational field. This means that if you took two clocks showing the same time and kept one on earth and the other in space, when they are brought back together, they will show different times.



Time is a Complex Subject

As evident from the vast amount of research and theories that have flowed out from the study of time, there’s no doubt that ‘time’ has continued to fascinate and intrigue us. Numerous books on time can be found within the philosophical, scientific, religious and literary communities. St. Augustine, a fourth century philosopher, viewed time as a phenomenon of human consciousness. Similarly, Einstein’s theory of relativity states that time and space are not as constant as everyday life would suggest.


How does this help me personally?

In Buddhism there is the recognition that everything that exists eventually vanishes, much like the second law of thermodynamics that states that as time progresses, entropy increases. This is how the present and future are distinguished. One of the core teachings of Buddhist practice is to recognise that we can reduce human suffering when we are able to come to terms with the painful fact of life that all things are impermanent.

With this idea in mind, let’s take a step back from viewing time as something that is separate from our emotional perception and realise that the notion of time is based on our brain’s ability to remember. Perhaps we can then use this realisation as a way to cope with loss. We could travel back in time and celebrate our cherished memories rather than mourn what is no more.

We could choose to slow down time, by bringing our awareness to what we are doing at the very moment -allowing for richer memories. We could look at time not as something to be feared, but rather have it serve as a reminder that we get to decide the meaning we give to time and the type of meaningful lasting memories we want to create.

For those of you that want to dive into the Rovelli’s talk given at the The Royal Institution in London, click here