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  • Writer's pictureAmos Gdalyahu

Happy new year - time and new year resolutions

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

New year, time.. a fresh start. Let's take a moment to reflect on the past year. How did we get to where we are now? Where do we want to be in the next year? And where do I want to be in 2030, in a decade's time?

So, after making plans for myself, the question arises as to how much I actually choose what happens to me. For example, a year ago, I never thought I would start writing a blog. As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when we're busy making other plans," meaning we don't have control over what will happen. But on the other hand, I feel a sense of control over reality and choice.

A Jewish phrase that illustrates this paradox is: "Everything is predetermined, and authority is given." But if authority is given, how can everything be predetermined? And if everything is predetermined, then free choice is an illusion. And if there is no free choice, then are we responsible for our wrongdoings? Who is to blame for all the prisoners in jail? So, do I choose what will happen to me in the next year? Brain science shows that at least simple choices, like pressing a button, happen in the brain before we consciously think we've made the choice. In other words, brain researchers can now predict what people will choose a second before they themselves are aware of their choice! The neural activity that says "press the button" happens independently of free choice, and when it reaches a certain threshold of activity, we become aware of it and think we made a choice. But in reality, a second earlier, the choice could already be predicted based on brain activity. So, is everything predetermined? Does free choice even exist? In fact, we don't know how more complex choices happen, beyond just pressing a button I mean choosing something meaningless. When a choice has meaning, brain researchers still can't predict what the choice will be (at least not yet). Additionally, research also shows that we have a choice in delaying behavior. In other words, free choice currently looks more like choosing "not to do" from the options we have.

Returning to the paradoxical statement "everything is predetermined and the authority is given". Maimonides (The Rambam) explains the paradox by pointing out that the two parts of the statement do not refer to the same entity: "everything is predetermined" is from God's perspective, while "the authority is given" is from our perspective in the present, where the authority to choose is given. God exists in a realm outside of time, and therefore god sees our choices and their outcomes in the future, just as god sees the present and the past. From god's perspective, everything is expected. But not from our perspective. We, in contrast to god, exist in a dimension in which time exists. This brings me to the topic of time. Physically, at very high speeds, two events can happen at the same time or one after the other, depending on where we measure from and both measurements can be correct! In other words, the past, present, and future can depend on the observer's perspective, and there can be moments in time that do not exist from one point of view but they do exist from another point of view. I find it really difficult to understand this because I have a certain perception of time. So how does the perception of time actually arise in the brain?

In fact, it is not known exactly how the brain perceives time, but we do know that the brain measures time. In the perception of time, the brain creates illusions. For example, in the sentence "this mouse is a wireless" I immediately understand that the mouse is a computer mouse, whereas in the sentence "this mouse is hungry" I immediately understand - seemingly - that the mouse is the animal. This example shows that I actually understood the word "mouse" only after reading the word that came after it: wireless or hungry. The brain creates an illusion that I understood the word "mouse" immediately. This illusion shows that the information for recognition arrives in processed time increments. That is, for recognition, the word "mouse" came together with the word "wireless" despite it being before the word "wireless" in time, and despite the fact that the visual system scanned the text in order and processed the words as they arrived. (The same thing happens if someone says these two sentences to me, try it with friends!). In other words, in sub-recognition or sub-conscious, when I process the sound coming to me or read the written words here - time is continuous like a wave, and as it seems to me that I perceive time, in a sequence. But in practice, information arrives to our consciousness in time- fragments, like raindrops, and I only have an illusion of a sequence.

Each time fragment can be likened to a bead in a necklace, and our life story - what is called episodic memory - is the thread on which the beads are strung. In stressful situations, there is a feeling that time stretches because our consciousness receives shorter time fragments, that is, many beads. When we recall such an event, it will be composed of many beads of time fragments, and therefore in retrospect, it will appear longer. Why do we need a concept of time? Memory of the past helps with survival, and the ability of humans to grasp the idea of time allows us to anticipate how what we do today will affect us in the future. In other words, it gives us the power to imagine where we want to be next year and plan how to get there. However, research shows that our ability to navigate through time to the past and future is fraught with bugs: our memory is not accurate and our ability to anticipate how we will feel in the future if something happens is even worse. Yet, the power is given, so where do I want to be in a year?

Usually, I write about the neuroscience of sexuality, but sometimes, like now, I write about other things related to the brain. I hope you've enjoed!


Time in the brain - Dean Buenomano UCLA: Our inability to predict how we'll feel in the future Dan Gilbert, Harvard :

Consuming experience: Why affective forecasters overestimate comparative value, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2010 Free will

As an illusion when we press a button - Itzhak Fried also from UCLA and Roy Mukamel these days at Tel Aviv University. Internally Generated Preactivation of Single Neurons in Human Medial Frontal Cortex Predicts Volition,

In meaningful decisions it's still impossible to predict our choice -

Neural precursors of decisions that matter—an ERP study of deliberate and arbitrary choice

Uri Maoz, Gideon Yaffe, Christof Koch, and Liad Mudrik eLife 2019

The brain divided information to fragments:

Picture: Vwalakte Freepik


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