Time, energy & consciousness

consciousnessTime, Energy and Consciousness

The physicist, Bernard Carr, recently put forward the suggestion that there might be a connection between the treatment of time and energy under Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the sense of a ‘present moment’ that encapsulates our consciousness, and is distinct from the past that has to be recalled from memory or the future which is the subject of thought or speculation.

Uncertainty principle is better known for stating that the position and momentum of a quantum particle cannot be exactly measured simultaneously. The greater the precision of the measurement of one property, the more imprecise becomes the measurement of the other property. Less well known is the fact that uncertainty principle also applies to time and energy. The shorter i.e. the more precise the time measured the greater is the uncertainty about the amount of energy in the system being measured. Thus if we study fast-decaying particles, the accuracy of the necessary time measurement creates a correspondingly greater degree of uncertainty as to the mass of the particle. With slower particle decay the accuracy of the measurement of mass increases because of the less rigorous specification of time.

How does this aspect of physics relate to consciousness? Approaching the question from the direction of recent neuroscience, it is possible to suggest a connection with the time-energy proposal. Writing a chapter on cognition in the recently published ‘Dynamic Coordination in the Brain’, the neuroscientist, Catherine Tallon-Baudry suggests that the oscillation of electrical activity in the brain could be used to group and separate chunks of data. She also mentions the suggestion that very slow neural oscillations could be related to the ‘psychological present’ or the few seconds that form a perceptual unity that does not need to be recalled from memory. The relative slowness of the oscillation would allow any measure of the energy of the system to become more precise. In the same volume, Andreas Engel also writing on cognition suggests that oscillating neural waves may allow computations to be condensed into a packet, and also mentions studies suggesting that attention is divided into discrete chunks of time.

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