Skip to main content

The Time of Mankind

Prof. Dr. Ernst Pöppel

HENN Akademie, April 24, 2008

What is time? Or put another way: How do we access time? How does the moment we experience come about? Our entire technology is based on an image of time, as expressed by Newton. Our time experience is, however, in no way an image of this syntactical theory of time, rather we have to look for the basis in our subjective accessibility to time, as well as for the technological concepts of time.

From a psychophysics aspect, this subjective time is conceived as resolution capacity, as the distinguishing ability in the perception of processes. As long ago as the 1860s, conceptual standards were laid down for chronometric analyses, which were used to measure the speed of mental processes and consequently the length of time of subjective intervals of the present. For us humans this timeframe lasts for roughly three seconds. We come across this interval with surprising consistency in musical motifs, social interactions and in poetic verses.

Only the smallest part of our brain has sensory cells and cells controlling the motor system. By far the largest part is an intermediary network that is found “between” these functions and which ensures that we have images of the outside world which are not precise. Given this architecture of the brain, the main aspect is not precision but rather the incorporation of various means of perception, which are processed at different speeds in our own region of the brain: i.e. hearing, seeing movement, colours etc. The brain organises the incorporation of these different levels by timeframes, which we experience as the present.

Prof. Dr. Ernst Pöppel is president of the Institute for Medical Psychology in Munich and executive president of the Human Sciences Centre of the Ludwig-Maximilian University. He is also the scientific co-director of the Parmenides Centre for the Study of Thinking in Elba/Italy and Munich and scientific head of the Generation Research Program, Bad Tölz. He is involved in the scientific workstations in the Max-Planck Institutes for behavioural physiology and psychiatry, in the Department for Psychology and Brain Science of the MIT, Cambridge (USA) and the Jülich research centre.

Ernst Pöppel
Prof. Dr.