In The Field

World Science Festival: Time, the familiar stranger

Posted on behalf of Neda Afsarmanesh

“This moment, this now, is a construction. How does the brain bring the past and the future together to create the now?” It was a daunting introduction that moderator Harold Evans put forth at the start of his talk here. I don’t think the question was answered, or that it could even be answered with what we presently (no pun intended) know.

I liked the flow of the lecture—it was more relaxed and (for better and worse) followed a non-linear format. Oliver Sacks, true to the great storyteller that he is, related what he had learned from years of work with patients who have “time” problems. I was familiar with his Parkinson’s and epilepsy stories (I have been a fan for a while …), but what stood out was his “two-timed” patient: one side of the patient’s body moved at a abnormally slow tempo while the other moved at an atypically fast tempo; the only time the two sides of the body followed the same speed was when the patient played the organ.


Contrasting the years of patient work was the laboratory experience presented by Warren Meck and Daniel Gilbert. Meck even ran a little time “experiment” on the audience. Though I enjoyed hearing about the lab work and what it tells us, I undoubtedly showed up to listen to Sacks. I would even venture to say that Gilbert presented a more philosophical perspective than the hard science.

In fact, much of the talk had a philosophical tone. Gilbert and Sacks could not agree if children see time differently or if our perception of time changes as we get older. And there were frequent references to the power of our imagination, how it distorts time and how this allows us to make the grand plans for the future. It reminded me of Alan Lightman’s little book Einstein’s Dreams, which imagines different worlds with different perceptions of time—for the old, the young, and everyone in between.

It was a bit of science and a bit of philosophy discussed by a well versed panel which consisted of two middle-aged men and two older men. And really, what could have been more appropriate when talking about our perception of the passage of time than a young and old panel?

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