Brains and Databases: An Obsession with Time Keeping

Courtesy of: Pasieka / Science Photo Library / Corbis

Data management professionals can add a time dimension to data via the use of temporal databases. However, neuroscientists are also interested in the time dimension with their study of the human brain, and in particular a concept called “brain time”.

Ever had an experience where you remember the event like it happened yesterday? How rich and vivid is that event? Can you remember details such as whether it was night or day, various sounds, smells and more?

The April 25, 2011 issue of the New Yorker has a terrific interview with neuroscientist David Eagleman.  As an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, Eagleman is obsessed with mysteries of the brain, and specifically the concept of brain time.

Brain time refers to perceptions that for critical events in our lives, time seems to slow down. Now of course, we know that time really doesn’t slow down, but the brain perceives it that way.  The New Yorker article mentions a sense of time is threaded through everything we perceive. In fact, the article cites there aremultiple parts of the brain such as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, cerebellum, basal ganglia and various sections of the cortex that are all potential timekeepers.

Adding complexity to the issue, not only are different sections of the brain responsible for time keeping, but the “inputs” from our five senses arrive at different times. The New Yorker article points out that our brain can react more quickly to sound as opposed to when we stub our big toe because that sensory pain must travel up the spinal cord.

Even more amazing, Eagleman explains; “The signals reach the brain within a hundred milliseconds of one another, and any differences in processing are erased.” So then, while the brain gets information at different times, it “synchs” all these inputs together to present to us a view of the world.

Neuroscientists aren’t the only ones obsessed with how time is processed and presented. In the analytics space, companies are interested in understanding their business at any point in time and want the ability to take a “state of the business” snapshot for reporting or compliance purposes. These efforts can be managed via use of applications and a temporal database which provides an opportunity for much richer analysis by capturing and understanding historical changes.

There is a common adage that “time marches on” in regular intervals. However neuroscientists are learning the human brain perceives time quite differently, as sometimes slow or fast and starting/stopping “in fits”.  While the concept of time is still a mysterious subject, it appears there is much room for discovery from a careful examination of “in the moment” timekeeping for brains and databases alike.


  • The brain is responsible for “stitching the world together” with inputs from our five senses. How is this similar to the role of BI professionals?
  • What additional insights can you share about how your organization “keeps time” for better decision making?

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