Brain Cuttings: Fifteen Journeys Through the Mind by Carl Zimmer

By Carl Zimmer

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Scientists who study faces today do not rely on their pet dogs or letters from friends in Brazil. They trace the development of the face in embryos, scan brains, read the electrical activity of muscles, and record grins and pouts on high-speed video. Our faces, these scientists have shown, acquired some of their basic form more than half a billion years ago. It was then that early fish evolved muscles on their heads to suck in food and water. All the muscles of our faces develop from a strip of cells at the base of the embryonic head, just as they do in lampreys, which belong to one of the oldest lineages of vertebrates alive today.

The Music of Time Whenever I lose my watch, I take my sweet time to get a new one. I enjoy the freedom from my compulsion to carve my days into minute-size fragments. But my liberty has its limits. Even if I get rid of the clock strapped to my wrist, I cannot escape the one in my head. The brain keeps time, from the flicker of milliseconds to the languorous unfurling of hours and days and years. Humans and animals alike use their mental clock for tasks that require precise timing. In order to tell where a voice is coming from, for example, we time how long it takes for the sound to reach both ears.

People addicted to stimulants like cocaine guessed 91 seconds. If Meck is right, their mental music has changed from a waltz to a jitterbug. We don’t need drugs for our feeling of time to change, however. When we experience a moment of terror—falling from a tree, for example, or watching a car veer out of control and come towards us—time seems to slow down. In 2007, David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, and his colleagues set out to probe how this feeling arises. They found some hardy volunteers who were willing to climb a 46-meter tower and fall backwards down into a net.

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