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On the Limits of Time in the Brain

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Abstract J.T. Fraser used to emphasize the uniqueness of the human brain in its capacity for apprehending the various dimensions of “nootemporality” (Fraser 1982 and 1987). Indeed, our brain allows us to sense the flow of time, to measure delays, to remember past events or to predict future outcomes. In these achievements, the human brain reveals itself far superior to its animal counterpart. Women and men are the only beings, I believe, who are able to think about what they will do the next day. This is because such a thought implies three intellectual abilities that are proper to mankind: the capacity to take their own thoughts as objects of their thinking, the ability of mental time travels—to the past thanks to their episodic memory or to the future—and the possibility to project very far into the future, as a consequence of their enlarged and complexified forebrain. But there are severe limits to our timing abilities of which we are often unaware. Our sensibility to the passing time, like other of our intellectual abilities, is often competing with other brain functions, because they use at least in part the same neural networks. This is particularly the case regarding attention. The deeper the level of attention required, the looser is our perception of the flow of time. When we pay attention to something, when we fix our attention, then our inner sense of the flux of time freezes. This limitation should not sound too unfamiliar to the reader of J.T. Fraser who wrote in his book Time, Conflict, and Human Values (1999) about “time as a nested hierarchy of unresolvable conflicts.”

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