Now Is The Time…

By Carl Zimmer | July 12, 2008 1:33 pm

Writing about the brain is one of the Black-Diamond challenges of science writing. We all think we know what’s going in our heads, and yet the cells and neurotransmitters and signal patterns don’t fit comfortably into our everyday metaphors. Linguist Mark Liberman at Language Log regularly writes devastating posts about how lousy a job journalists sometimes do writing about neuroscience news–especially when the research touches on our pat assumptions and stereotypes. (”See, women really do think differently…” etc.)

I’ve written a lot about the brain in the past (including a book about the dawn of neurology), but now I’m setting out to write a column every month for Discover about our gray matter. The first one is now online: it’s about how we perceive time. The first thing I had to do was throw out the metaphor of the clock, because it just doesn’t do a good job of capturing our brains’ beautiful strategies for gauging the flow of now into yesterday.

As I write these pieces, I hope that readers will leave comments–neuroscientists if you’re out there, and everyone else. I hope to get things right; I expect to get things wrong; and I’m prepared to learn along the way.

[Image: Fabiola Medeiros, reprinted under a Creative Commons licence]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Brains, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (4)

  1. sailor

    My first thought was that there may be no specific “timing mechanism” in the brain. We could get an experience of time based on the pattern of the day, how much goes on and our own rhythms of things like hunger. In this case an ability to tell time somewhat accurately would be learnt, and so someone who carried a watch and referred to it often, might be better at measuring short intervals say, one to five minutes, than someone who did not worry about time and seldom had to adhere to it. So brain studies showing that specific brain areas may be involved, runs counter to that, and makes it really interesting.

  2. carl,
    i work for a brazilian science news magazine, and am always tense when a story of mine comes out. will there be horrible mistakes, will someone be offended? thanks for this last sentence of yours, i’m thinking i’ll adopt it as my motto.

  3. EastwoodDC

    What I want to know is why the music plays to much faster (perception of time slows) the closer it gets to quitting time. :-)

  4. neozorba

    Great article! I’m still perplexed when I reach down to touch my toe with a finger and all the sensations seem simultaneous: visual touch, finger perception, toe perception. Each neural pathway is different in length yet they all seem to happen at once. Does the brain wait for all impulses to arrive before presenting the result? The long toe-to-brain must take a significant time and should be noticably different from the super-fast eye to brain. How does this happen?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


See More

Collapse bottom bar