See Inside A Matter of Time

Remembering When [Preview]

Several brain structures contribute to mind time, organizing our experiences into chronologies of remembered events

In Brief


  • Researchers understand how the body keeps time through circadian rhythms but not how the brain is able to place events in the proper chronological sequence.
  • Recent studies suggest that various brain structures, including the hippocampus, basal forebrain and temporal lobe, have some part to play in keeping mind time.


WE WAKE UP TO TIME, COURTESY OF AN ALARM CLOCK, AND GO THROUGH A DAY RUN BY time—the meeting, the visitors, the conference call, the luncheon are all set to begin at a particular hour. We can coordinate our own activities with those of others because we all implicitly agree to follow a single system for measuring time, one based on the inexorable rise and fall of daylight. In the course of evolution, humans have developed a biological clock set to this alternating rhythm of light and dark. This clock, located in the brain's hypothalamus, governs what I call body time [see “Times of Our Lives,” by Karen Wright, on page 34].

But there is another kind of time altogether. “Mind time” has to do with how we experience the passage of time and how we organize chronology. Despite the steady tick of the clock, duration can seem fast or slow, short or long. And this variability can happen on different scales, from decades, seasons, weeks and hours, down to the tiniest intervals of music—the span of a note or the moment of silence between two notes. We also place events in time, deciding when they occurred, in which order and on what scale, whether that of a lifetime or of a few seconds.

How mind time relates to the biological clock of body time is unknown. It is also not clear whether mind time depends on a single timekeeping device or if our experiences of duration and temporal order rely primarily, or even exclusively, on information processing. If the latter alternative proves to be true, mind time must be determined by the attention we give to events and the emotions we feel when they occur. It must also be influenced by the manner in which we record those events and the inferences we make as we perceive and recall them.

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