Notes from VMWorld: Your Brain Has Latency.

Michelle DeFiore

On the last day of VMWorld, the keynote speakers were experts on neurology. The first of the final-day keynote speakers, Dr. David Eagleman, is the director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine.

In short, he studies how the brain constructs time. It’s a lot more fluid than one would think. Or how would one will have had thought, more accurately… (Wioll haven been think?) You see, the brain, like your network, has latency.

Neural signals, in fact, travel at a rate of 1 meter per second – far slower than Cat-5, for sure. For example, one experiment had people click with a mouse on a square that showed a flash of light after a 100ms delay. After a few minutes of this, the computer removed the delay; and the participants then perceived that the light would come on before they clicked the mouse.

The reason – the brain incorporates the delay into your perception of the processing time. This makes information more fluid, and creates a better understanding of cause and effect, but your perception of time is off by several milliseconds. Similarly, as the speed of light is faster than the speed of sound, if you were to see a flash accompanied by a loud sound from a distance, you would normally see the flash before hearing the sound.

However, when it is a human being controlling the flash and sound, the brain perceives the visual and audio stimuli as simultaneous. In other words, your brain knows when you did something, and factors that into your perception of the world. And when you’re about to get into an accident, it seems like time seems to slow down.

The reason for all this, according to Dr. Edelman, is that the brain is at the seat of all our perceptions, and time is something the brain is actively constructing.

One experiment – the “flash-lag” illusion, illustrates an unusual fact: Mentally, we live a short time in the past. In this experiment, a ring rotates, and a flash is shown in the center of the ring. Even though the flash is in the center of the ring, the brain sees things and tries to predict them. It picks up information and then interpolates what it thinks it saw. And neural signals, like all processing, have latency.

In fact, the processing of neural signals is 1 meter per second – a great deal slower than even Cat-5 cable. “Now,” – that is, what we perceive to be “now,” has actually happened a (neurological) long time ago.

In fact, your brain takes all the information from your body, and it has to wait from your slowest signal – your toe! – before it creates a total picture. This is why, even though there is far more latency from your toe than there is from your mouth, if you were to bite your toe, you’d feel both at the same time.

And indeed, surprisingly enough, tall people live further in the past than short people – as short people have less latency from brain to toe. The brain sends motor signals and sensory feedback that is not just processed in different areas of the brain, but also at different rates.

When it comes to perception, your brain goes through a lot of trouble to synchronize them for you. And the reason it does so is because one of the most important calculations we do (unconsciously) is figuring causality.

“Did I cause something to happen?” in other words. As for the mortal “slow-motion” effect, an experiment showed it was a matter of remembrance after the fact, rather than perception during the event, which slowed down. In this experiment, Dr. Edelman created a device that rapidly flashed random numbers.

They found out at exactly what speed someone can read the numbers – then made it just a tiny little bit faster, to where it was unreadable. Then, in an experiment that I hopefully will get to see replicated on Mythbusters someday, he put volunteers into a life-threatening situation – he took them to an amusement park where he dropped them over 100 feet and 70mph in freefall into a safety net.

But they weren’t able to read the numbers “in slow motion” even though they would estimate their own time falling as 36% longer than they estimated the time of others falling. Edelman’s hypothesis is that time and memory are intertwined, and that your brain retains more important information about new and novel events.

All in all, it was a fascinating presentation that underscores not just issues in neurology but issues in technology as well. Like a network, your brain has latency. And like any good monitoring system (cloud monitoring, server virtualization monitoring, IT operations monitoring, etc.), your brain processes all the data, all the time; however, it highlights and stores the important, anomalous data in more detail and depth.

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