Thursday, December 21, 2017

Time and Myself in Berlin by Jihwan

Time and Myself in Berlin
Jihwan Myung
Taipei Medical University & Shuang Ho Hospital, Taiwan

It was like any other day. I think it was rainy. The details of weather were irrelevant. In the
place where I was, the day started with darkness at 25 degrees Celsius and ended with
darkness at 25 degrees Celsius. My job was to look at how time is kept in the tiny little circadian
clock in the mouse brain, and for that reason I spent long hours in a small room under constant
conditions along with my mice. I remember the day, and the jokes I exchanged with a fellow
researcher under an umbrella, not because I was particularly worried about smelling like a damp
mouse, but because of a realization that hit hard on me—I was getting old and these constant
conditions were making me agnostic about the fact. Suddenly the slogan I saw the other day on
the Internet, “Gain Time to Think (at the Wissenschaftskolleg),” felt immensely appealing. Time
was always there but for a long time, time was not entirely mine. Time was also the topic that
fascinated me from the beginning. Would I be able to have time of my own and think thoroughly
about time in the brain?

Take a time machine back to when I was a child. Albert Einstein, the quintessential scientist for
many people, was a revolutionary for me. He powerfully demonstrated that philosophers do not
know the truth. Yet, he did so not through experimental data but through Gedankenexperiment,
something that the philosophers had been supposedly doing all along. But that was only one
part of the irony. The enigma of Einstein's theory came from the fact that its central subject was
time, which had been entirely philosophical. A famous show-down happened when Einstein was
42 years old and the young physicist announced to the old philosopher Henri Bergson that
philosopher’s time was no more special than the physicist’s time. According to Einstein, the only
remaining, unstudied kind of time was a psychological one, which was what I was studying.
Decades have passed since then and Einstein became a cliché. I, an aspiring physics student,
became a 42-year old, and became a biologist. The mystic statement about time became a
plain statement that light travels at a constant speed and the whole theory became simply a
classical mechanics analogy for certain things in electrodynamics. In 2016, when all the
fascination about time had completely dwindled, I found myself, along with my wife Hitomi, at the
Wissenschaftskolleg, the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin.

In addition to psychological time, there was biological time. Almost all living organisms on Earth
harbor a clock that is set to predict the 24-hour day-night cycles. The biological clock is not
exactly precise, and all organisms effectively live in their slightly subjective time. Regardless,
Einstein might have said there is no biologist's time. The laws of physics supervene the laws of
biology. A barrier of complexity, however, lies in between physics and biology and it is not easy
to derive laws governing biological time from physical principles. Biological time stands as a
good enough conceptual approximation for all practical purposes. Since biological time has an
objective basis as does physical time, I thought I could use it to understand psychological time,
which was subjective. This was a more ambitious plan than it sounded. Circadian rhythms
provide a rough guideline to the brain on the daily ration of usable time. In many animals, the
sleep-wake cycle is largely determined by the circadian clock. The human species is a bit of an
outlier—they often willfully ignore what their internal clock says and just work or play through the
night. Therefore, approaching subjective time from the biological basis clearly had its limit. I
had to think about time from the subjective perspective. This was like drilling the Channel
Tunnel. A scientific study of subjective time must start from the biological side but it cannot be
subjective if it is not understood on the first-person side. So one has to bore the tunnel between
subjectivity and objectivity from both directions. Luckily, a small library at the
Wissenschaftskolleg had the whole collection on Aristotle, who had thought about this issue. I
tried other philosophers, such as Heidegger, but without much success. When I was struggling,
I rediscovered Henri Bergson. Aristotle could define time before and after "now," the moment
one is conscious of. Bergson literally stretched the "now" moment into a duration like an elastic
rubber band. This is the consciousness's comfort zone, where it can wield its free will. I then
imagined that biology puts a constraint on the duration's elasticity. The duration has to do with
our attention to life, and this we know by our experience of time running fast when we are having
fun and time slowing down when we are gloomy. The circadian clock, which counts objective
time of the day, can modulate the extent of temporality by limiting the release time of dopamine
that accelerates the flow of subjective time. The circadianly controlled release happens to occur
in the morning and this has an intuitively clear consequence, such that we quite often say "Oh
it's already time for lunch" but we never really say the same thing about dinner. Time does run
fast during the morning thanks to the timed dopamine release. Then I made a second statement
that the qualia of time perception are mood states. This is likely, yet at this moment only
correlational, because global analysis of Twitter patterns shows that people in the morning use
the words associated with heightened mood states. I presented these thoughts at the
Colloquium. Little did I know at the time was that the presentation would be the basis of my
future job talk which would take me to Taiwan to study consciousness seriously.

The time I had in Berlin has definitely made some permanent changes in my life. It allowed me
to ask myself the most exciting question I knew of. It allowed me to come back to where I had
started. There are so many more things I wish to write about, like when I had to pass by the
ruins of the Israelitisches Krankenheim while commuting to my office in an old human anatomy
building. For now, let me close one chapter with my small intellectual encounter with Einstein
and Bergson, which would not have been possible without the particular flavor of Winter in