ernst_p_ppel's picture
Head of Research Group Systems, Neuroscience and Cognitive Research, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Germany; Guest Professor, Peking University, China
Time Window

Modern biology is guided by a principle that has been summarized by Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1973 with the memorable sentence: “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.” On the basis of this conceptual frame I both generalize, but also suggest more specifically that nothing in neurobiology, psychology, the social sciences (or cognitive science in general), makes sense except in the light of synchronization, i.e., to create common time for temporally and spatially distributed sources of information or events. Without synchronization neural information processing, cognitive control, emotional relations, or social interactions would be either impossible or severely disrupted; without synchronization we would be surrounded by informational chaos, desynchronized activities, unrelated events, or misunderstandings.

Synchronization as a fundamental principle is implemented on different operating levels by temporal windows with different time constants, from the sub-second range to seconds up to days as reflected in circadian rhythms and even annual cycles. Temporal windows are both the basis for the creation of perceptual, conceptual and social identity, and they provide the necessary building blocks for the construction of experiential sequences, or for behavioral organisation. Thus, it is said: “Nothing in cognitive science makes sense except in the light of time windows.”

When referring to time windows, it is necessarily implied that information processing has to be discontinuous or discrete. Although of fundamental importance, the question of whether information processing on the neural or cognitive level is of continuous or of discrete nature has been neglected in this domain of scientific endeavor; usually and uncritically continuous processing of information is taken for granted. The implicit assumption of a continuous processing mode of information may be due to an unquestioned orientation of cognitive research and psychological reasoning towards classical physics. This is how Isaac Newton in 1686 defines time: “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.” With this concept of an "equal flow, “ time serves as a uni-dimensional and continuous “container” within which events are happening at one or at another time. Does this theoretical concept of temporal continuity provide a solid conceptual background when we want to understand neural and cognitive processes? The answer is “no.” The concept of time windows speaks against such a frame of reference. Temporal processing has to be necessarily discrete to allow for efficient complexity reduction of information on different operating levels.