This Is How Your Brain Tells Time


All information under the title “Article” was written by Emily Reas for Scientific American. I would not have known about this article had Sharon Mashburn not shared it.


aandrew via Shutterstock
agsandrew via Shutterstock

When Sharon Mashburn shared the article, I was instantly captivated by the picture. Once I stopped staring at the picture, it was the title of the article that captured my attention and imagination. I chose to read the article not because I am fascinated by watches, clocks, time, alarms, or brain anatomy. What caused me to read the article was my curiosity about the possible connection between a brain’s ability to know time and a brain’s ability to recover after brain injury.



Did you make it to school, work, or an appointment on time this morning? The brain’s impressively accurate internal clock allows us to detect the passage of time, a skill essential for many critical daily functions. Without the ability to track elapsed time, our morning shower could continue indefinitely. Without that nagging feeling to remind us we’ve been driving too long, we might easily miss our exit.

But how does the brain generate this finely tuned mental clock? Neuroscientists believe that we have distinct neural systems for processing different types of time. Until recently, most neuroscientists believed that this latter type of temporal processing – the kind that alerts you when you’ve lingered over breakfast for too long – is supported by a single brain system. However, emerging research indicates that the model of a single neural clock might be too simplistic. A new study, recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience by neuroscientists at the University of California, Irvine, reveals the brain may in fact have a second method for sensing elapsed time.

Conscious awareness of elapsed time demands that the brain not only measure time, but also keep a running memory of how much time has passed. Scientists have long known that a part of the brain called the hippocampus is critically important for remembering past experiences. They now believe that it might also play a role in remembering the passage of time. However, the hippocampus isn’t always necessary for tracking time. Remarkably, people with damage to their hippocampus can accurately remember the passage of short time periods, but are impaired at remembering long time intervals. These findings hint that the hippocampus is important for signaling some – but not all – temporal information.


  • The connection between a brain’s ability to tell time and a brain’s ability to recover after brain injury was not mentioned in the article. However, the fact that the connection was not mentioned in this article does not imply the connection cannot or does not exist.
  • The hippocampus is the part of the brain which is primarily responsible for knowing the passage of time.
  • Some people with damage to their hippocampus can still remember the passage of short time periods.
  • The fact that even damaged brains function to some degree, gives me hope that understanding how the brain works will significantly shorten our journeys to recovery.

Call to Action

If you have any tips for people regarding the passage of time, please share your tips in the comment box below this post so others can benefit from your experience. Thank you.


To read the original Scientific American article, click here.

For those who wish to a short, but painfully scientific, abstract click here.

Thanks to Sharon Chrysta Mashburn for sharing the article; Emily Reas for writing the article; Scientific American for publishing the article; agsandrew for creating the picture; Shutterstock for hosting the picture; and all the other people who, directly or indirectly, made it possible for me to include the picture and text I used in this post.


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