To understand these “rhythms of attention,” Fiebelkorn suggests imagining standing in Times Square on New Years’ Eve, surrounded by people, cars, and music. The scene presents far more sensory information than one human brain is capable of sorting through, and so, the brain deals with all of the information in two ways. First, it focuses on a single point of interest: the street corner where you might meet a friend, or Ryan Seacrest combing the crowd for interviews. Like a filmstrip, the brain takes snapshots of these moments and pieces them together into a cohesive narrative, or “perceptual cycle.”
We experience that moment as continuous, but in reality, we’ve only sampled certain elements of the environment around us. It feels continuous because our brains have filled in the gaps for us, explains Berkeley’s Knight Lab researcher and first author Randolph Helfrich, Ph.D. to Inverse.
“I think it’s more a philosophical problem that it is a scientific problem,” he says. “Because when we look at brain data we see a pattern that waxes and wanes, they’re never constant and stable. Everyone perceives the world as continuous and coherent, but the real tricky part is, how does the brain do that?”
The teams behind both studies analyzed data from both human and macaque brains during a series of tasks to understand how the brain stitches together a coherent narrative when it’s only got snapshots to work with. The reason why we experience reality as a movie when it’s only a collection of pictures can be at least partially explained by our rhythms of attention. About four times every second, the brain stops taking snapshots of individual points of focus — like your friend on the corner in Times Square — and collects background information about the environment. Without you knowing it, the brain absorbs the sound of the crowd, the feeling of the freezing December air — which it later uses to stitch together a narrative of the complete Times Square Experience.