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We Are Always Living in the Past — at Least Our Brain Does

According to science, we’re always trying to catch up to the present which places us living in constant delay

Photo by Brooke Campbell from Unsplash

Time is a tricky concept.

Einstein already told us it’s relative to our point of reference.

Now, neuroscience is telling us there’s one more thing to take into consideration: the time it takes to process stimuli.

Our minds construct reality every day

Have you had that feeling the moment you wake up that you don’t know where you are or even who you are?

Once you start looking around you, everything assembles back in your mind: I’m “x”, I live in “y” with “z”, and so on. You remember who you are and you place yourself in a space and time. This may take a couple of seconds or a little longer, but we eventually end up reconstructing our whole life once again.

The thing is, we’re constructing our reality all the time.

The example above is just a more extreme version of it, but we’re processing and interpreting our surroundings as long as we’re awake. We interact with our environment and make decisions as simple as putting one foot in front of the other while we walk, to planning out our next chess move.

But we’re interacting with an environment that’s always ahead of us. The time it takes to process stimuli is about 80 milliseconds (the time it takes us to blink), so our consciousness is actually staying behind actual events. Never being able to catch up.

We live in a constant lag from current events

Photo by Linus Nylund from Unsplash

So we’re living just a little bit far behind actual events.

What we see already happened slightly before we get to perceive it.

It’s like looking at the stars. What we see is something that happened millions of years ago, and those celestial bodies could have already disappeared and we won’t know it for years to come.

Or let’s think of it in another way.

When you look at a tennis match from a distance you first see the ball being hit, and then you hear its sound. This is a partial delay regarding the thing you’re interacting with (tennis match), but now think of every stimulus getting to you with delay. Not just sound like in this example.

We’re seeing a live feed on a TV (environment) that’s really a couple of milliseconds ahead of us.

Luckily, the mind can adjust

Now think about a tennis match. When a player serves, the ball can travel at a speed of 230km/h or 142,9 mph (253km/h or 157.2 mph is today’s record). If my math is correct, that would mean that in 80 milliseconds the ball would’ve traveled 5.12 meters (16.8 feet). So if we would’ve remained with that lag, we would never be able to hit that ball.

This means that if we would’ve perceived the ball’s position just relying on our most recent information available, we would never have the chance to hit the ball.

We might not actually see where the ball is, but luckily the brain makes accurate predictions that help us respond effectively thus hitting it precisely. The brain extrapolates the ball’s position along its perceived trajectory, which means that the brain is constantly predicting and filling up the gaps.

It’s like the blind spot we have in our eyesight because of the lack of photoreceptors in that region. The brain completes our visual image and we never get to perceive this blindspot.

A similar effect happens with time, the brain fills the temporal gap with its prediction model and we interact with the world based on it.

Bonus track: our body’s ability to react to an event before it happens

We’ve been talking about how it takes time for things to process in our brains and how we really function in life with a slight retardation from actual events. But there’s also another interesting effect that’s been studied: our body’s ability to look into the near future and react to it.

Now hold on a minute, this is not clairvoyance nor is a sudden future teller sort of thing.

It’s an unconscious perception of our body of future experiences.

The study goes as follows (Radin, 2004):

  1. Participants are seated in front of a computer screen. Their non-dominant hand is hooked with electrodes to measure differences in skin conductance due to sweat gland activity. These responses are involuntary so they’re beyond our conscious control.
  2. The participant presses a button with their dominant hand and the computer waits 5 seconds before showing a photo randomly from a large pool of photos for 3 seconds.
  3. Participants either saw a calm photo (landscapes, nature, or people scenes) or an emotional one (erotic, violent, or an accident scene). But when they pressed the button, the computer selected one at random. Neither the subject nor the experimenter knew which photo would appear thus, a double-blind experiment.
  4. Then the screen goes blank for 10 seconds for the subject to cool down and the skin conductance to return to a base level. The computer instructs the subject to press a button whenever he/she is ready and a new trial begins.

Screenshot of the procedure from Dean Radin’s study (2004)

What happened was actually fascinating.

On the one hand, participants had a spike in their skin activity before the emotional photo appeared. On the other hand, during the calm photo exposure, their skin activity remained almost unchanged.

Screenshot of the results from Dean Radin’s study (2004)

Keep in mind that skin activity takes time to change. It reacts 2 to 3 seconds after the presentation of a stimulus, not at the moment of appearance.

So what you see from the graph is that once the participant has pressed the button (time 0s) to actually seeing the photo (time 5s), the skin has already began reacting. This is happening without the participant knowing that the photo will be an emotional one. The body is reacting ahead of time!

Weird isn’t it?

Well, this is just one of many experiments that have studied the presentment effect. Others have shown:

“For example, in one experiment, participants saw a list of words and were then given a test in which they tried to retype as many of the words as they could remember. Next, a computer randomly selected some of the words from the list and gave the participants practice exercises on them. When their earlier memory test results were checked, it was found that they had remembered more of the words they were to practice later than words they were not going to practice. In other words, the practice exercises had reached back in time to help them on the earlier test.” (The Cornell Chronicle, 2010)

There’s definitely something going on. Our body might be able to have a glimpse into the future and react to it before it arrives.


We’ve learned from different scientific studies that our brain and body have an interesting relationship with time.

On the one hand, we are unable to perceive the present when it happens since it takes a little more than a blink of an eye to process information. Thus, everything we see has already happened. Just like the stars we see at night, we’re seeing their past.

The mind tries to compensate by filling up with predictive models of what’s going to happen, and we act upon it. We have a temporal blind spot just like we have a blind spot in our eyes that our brain fills so we don’t perceive a gap.

On the other hand, the body can sometimes react before an event actually happens. We are unconsciously perceiving future events to which our brain responds accordingly.

If we are swinging between past and future, the correct question we should ask ourselves is not where are we but rather in what time are we living throughout the space-time continuum?

By Pavle Marinkovic on .

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