A homunculus for time

Last week, Chris Fry, Twitter’s Senior VP for Engineering and a UCSD Cog Sci alum, came to talk at our department’s open house. The theme of his talk was why a PhD (specifically one from our department) was a good investment and helps him to be successful even in a career that’s seemingly far from academia.

There’s a metaphor he used that I can’t get out of my head this week. He talked about the homunculus, which, in the brain sciences, refers to the disproportionate mapping of different body parts in the motor and somatosensory cortices. In other words, the portion of the motor cortex devoted to hand movement is much larger than the proportion of the hand to the actual physical body, which explains why we can do much more dexterous movements with our hands than with our toes, for example.

homunculus

Fry commented that he imagines a homunculus for time in his memory. Each unit of time (usually we measure time in years) is not necessarily represented in his memory as the true portion that the period comprises in a person’s life. Grad school, he noted, was a disproportionately large chunk of his time homunculus. He seemed to suggest that it was a time of freedom and intensity, and a time in which he learned extensively and made many memories.

This metaphor takes an aspect of time that we’re all aware of – equivalent units of time often do not feel equal – and makes it concrete. His articulation was certainly effective in inspiring me to make this chunk of my temporal homunculus as disproportionally large as possible.

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2 comments

  1. This reminds me of something I’ve thought about, on a smaller scale, in the context of travel. When I look back on the times I’ve been in a foreign city, those weeks or months seem to take up more space in my memory than, say, my days spent commuting in and out of New York. At least for me, routine somehow compresses units of time in my memory. The times I’ve been in a new city take up a larger portion of my time homunculus.

    1. I couldn’t agree more – it must be some feature of novelty that causes us to code a situation as more memorable. An argument for doing something new or differently every day?

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