Overclocked: Our Future (I Hope)

May 25th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized

I’ve never been much of a drug user—apart from the odd, unexpected joint, I rarely take anything stronger than Scotch and iburprofren—but a recent New Yorker article, combined with my travel schedule, reminded me of a drug that I wish existed. First, though, the New Yorker piece, which was about the scientist David Eagleman, who studies how the brain perceives time. For example:

The brain is a remarkably capable chronometer for most purposes. It can track seconds, minutes, days, and weeks, set off alarms in the morning, at bedtime, on birthdays and anniversaries. Timing is so essential to our survival that it may be the most finely tuned of our senses. In lab tests, people can distinguish between sounds as little as five milliseconds apart, and our involuntary timing is even quicker. If you’re hiking through a jungle and a tiger growls in the underbrush, your brain will instantly home in on the sound by comparing when it reached each of your ears, and triangulating between the three points. The difference can be as little as nine-millionths of a second.

Yet “brain time,” as Eagleman calls it, is intrinsically subjective. “Try this exercise,” he suggests in a recent essay. “Put this book down and go look in a mirror. Now move your eyes back and forth, so that you’re looking at your left eye, then at your right eye, then at your left eye again. When your eyes shift from one position to the other, they take time to move and land on the other location. But here’s the kicker: you never see your eyes move.” There’s no evidence of any gaps in your perception—no darkened stretches like bits of blank film—yet much of what you see has been edited out. Your brain has taken a complicated scene of eyes darting back and forth and recut it as a simple one: your eyes stare straight ahead. Where did the missing moments go?

Pretty cool, eh? Well, reading this made me remember my drug wish: Why isn’t there a drug that would either speed up or slow down our experience of time? In computer-geek terms, why can’t we overclock or underclock our CPUs? You’d think Big Pharma, or its subsidiary, the CIA, would by now have developed drugs that would let us experience two hours as one, or 15 minutes as 60. You’d either be able to skip the dull bits or concentrate on their worthy moments with greater focus (though they’d seem to be going by in slow-motion). You could even have drugs so precisely calibrated that you could speed up your brain by, say 2 or 3 percent, so that you’d seem and act just a bit sharper than everyone around you. (Note to the ghost of Philip K. Dick: This is great material—it’s all yours if you want it.)

For me, a constant traveler, the uses would be practical: The 13 hours I spent in transit the other day could have felt like 6.5, or 2. And the 10 minutes I sat on the beach in full sunlight with no sunscreen could have been made to feel like hours.

And, as they say, think of the children! Forget Benadryl on intercontinental flights—or really, whenever—just slip them a ChronoFlex™ and enjoy peace and quiet for a change.

Obviously, I have no understanding of how brain chemistry works, but this would seem like as worthy a project as the one behind Provigil. Any scientists out there want to say if this is even remotely possible? Until then, I guess I’ll stick Angry Birds.

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