IN 1890, the American psychologist William James famously likened our conscious experience to the flow of a stream...recent research has shown that the “stream” of consciousness is, in fact, an illusion. We actually perceive the world in rhythmic pulses (brain waves that correlate with states like calm alertness and deep sleep) rather than as a continuous flow....We are exploring the possibility that brain rhythms are not merely a reflection of mental activity but a cause of it, helping shape perception, movement, memory and even consciousness itself...What this means is that the brain samples the world in rhythmic pulses, perhaps even discrete time chunks, much like the individual frames of a movie. From the brain’s perspective, experience is not continuous but quantized.
It turns out, for example, that our ability to detect a subtle event, like a slight change in a visual scene, oscillates over time, cycling between better and worse perceptual sensitivity several times a second. Research shows that these rhythms correlate with electrical rhythms of the brain.
If that’s hard to picture, here’s an analogy: Imagine trying to see an animal through a thick, swirling fog that varies in density as it drifts. The distinctness of the animal’s form will oscillate with the density of the fog, alternating between periods of relative clarity and opaqueness. According to recent experiments, this is how our perceptual systems sample the world — but rather than fog, it’s brain waves that drive the oscillations...Rhythms in the environment, such as those in music or speech, can draw neural oscillations into their tempo, effectively synchronizing the brain’s rhythms with those of the world around us.In the study reported in Psychological Science Hickok and colleagues:
...presented listeners with a three-beat-per-second rhythm (a pulsing “whoosh” sound) for only a few seconds and then asked the listeners to try to detect a faint tone immediately afterward. The tone was presented at a range of delays between zero and 1.4 seconds after the rhythm ended. Not only did we find that the ability to detect the tone varied over time by up to 25 percent — that’s a lot — but it did so precisely in sync with the previously heard three-beat-per-second rhythm.
Why would the brain do this? One theory is that it’s the brain’s way of focusing attention. Picture a noisy cafe filled with voices, clanging dishes and background music. As you attend to one particular acoustic stream — say, your lunch mate’s voice — your brain synchronizes its rhythm to the rhythm of the voice and enhances the perceptibility of that stream, while suppressing other streams, which have their own, different rhythms. (More broadly, this kind of synchronization has been proposed as a mechanism for communication between neural networks within the brain.)
All of this points to the need for a new metaphor. We should talk of the “rhythm” of thought, of perception, of consciousness. Conceptualizing our mental experience this way is not only more accurate, but it also situates our mind within the broader context of the daily, monthly and yearly rhythms that dominate our lives.