Jonathan Berger in Nautilus (illustration by Sterling Hundley):
Neuroscience gives us insights into how music creates an alternate temporal universe. During periods of intense perceptual engagement, such as being enraptured by music, activity in the prefrontal cortex, which generally focuses on introspection, shuts down. The sensory cortex becomes the focal area of processing and the “self-related” cortex essentially switches off. As neuroscientist Ilan Goldberg describes, “the term ‘losing yourself’ receives here a clear neuronal correlate.” Rather than enabling perceptual awareness, the role of the self-related prefrontal cortex is reflective, evaluating the significance of the music to the self. However, during intense moments, when time seems to stop, or rather, not exist at all, a selfless, Zen-like state can occur.
While the sublime sense of being lost in time is relatively rare, the distortion of perceived time is commonplace and routine. Broadly speaking, the brain processes timespans in two ways, one in which an explicit estimate is made regarding the duration of a particular stimulus—perhaps a sound or an ephemeral image—and the second, involving the implicit timespan between stimuli. These processes involve both memory and attention, which modulate the perception of time passing, depending upon how occupied or stimulated we are. Hence time can “fly” when we are occupied, or seem to stand still when we are waiting for the water in the kettle to boil. Unlike the literal loss of “self” that occurs during intense perceptual engagement, the subjective perception of elongated or compressed time is related to self-referential processing. An object—whether image or sound—moving toward you is perceived as longer in duration than the same object that is not moving, or that is receding from you. A looming or receding object triggers increased activation in the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortices—areas important for subjective awareness.
The directionality of musical melody and gesture evoke similar percepts of temporal dilation. The goal-oriented nature of music provides a framework in which a sense of motion is transposed to sonic structures, and the sensation of “looming” and “receding” can be simulated independently of relative spatial orientation. The subjectivity of time perception can be grounding and self-affirming—a source of great pleasure, or, conversely, able to create a state of disassociation with one’s self—a state of transcendence.