In search of “longevity”—a buzzword now ringing through the hills of Northern California—Silicon Valley billionaires are pouring liquid capital into cryonic vats and genetics labs. They’re popping supplements, receiving hormone treatments, even pumping young blood into their veins. For all their feverish effort, eternal life remains a distant fantasy.
Seekers of immortality are saddled with the body, the physical brain, the fact of entropy. Eventually, things fall apart; cells stop dividing, DNA mutates, organs fail. In a piece for the New Yorker, Tad Friend neatly divided the “Immortalists” into two camps: the Meat Puppets, who “believe that we can retool our biology and remain in our bodies”; and the Robocops, who “believe that we’ll eventually merge with mechanical bodies and/or with the cloud.” Both groups face potentially insurmountable challenges. The Meat Puppets struggle against the laws of nature and forces of decay. The RoboCops, who speak of “uploading” minds as if by zip file, are stuck with the complexities of consciousness. But there may be a third way forward, a workaround that sidesteps some of the problems of the first two and targets subjective experience. Call them the Time Hackers.
Like the RoboCops, the Time Hackers want to tap into your brain. But their goal isn’t to transfer the mind—“the ghost in the machine”—elsewhere. Instead, the Time Hackers want to modify consciousness, deceive the ghost inside your head, and make you feel as though you’re living forever. Their object of study is time perception, and their inspiration comes from a plot device commonly used in science fiction.
For frazzled writers of the fantastic, it’s often convenient to rewrite the rules of time. Depending on a plot’s needs, timestreams might flow differently in different places. Over here, time rushes by. Over there, time trickles. The Quantum Realm referenced in Avengers: Endgame is built around this sort of temporal manipulation, but time-bending has a long history in the genre, showing up with particular frequency in those sci-fi television series so enjoyed and binge-watched by tech workers everywhere.
In Episode 125 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Inner Light,” Captain Picard is knocked out by a mysterious energy beam emitted from an alien space probe. As the bridge crew attempt to revive their unconscious captain, the “A Plot” follows Picard’s new life on the planet Kataan. Now “Kamin,” a married man and village blacksmith, he suffers delusions of having once been a starship captain. Years go by and memories of the USS Enterprise gradually fade. Kamin works in the village, masters the flute, and grows old enough to have grandchildren. None of it is real. In the final act, he wakes up, surrounded by his shipmates and in a state of shock. “How long?” Picard asks. “Twenty, 25 minutes,” his first officer replies.
Rick and Morty has fun with the same idea in “Mortynight Run.” In a futuristic arcade on an alien planet, Morty puts on a VR helmet and plays a simulation called Roy: A Life Well Lived. He experiences an entire lifetime in a matter of minutes. After 55 simulated years, it’s game over for Roy, and Morty is pulled back to reality.
Joe Potter isn’t so lucky. In the haunting conclusion of Black Mirror’s 2014 Christmas special, it’s revealed that Joe has commited murder. A digitized version of Joe is trapped in virtual solitary confinement and condemned to experience a thousand years for every real-world minute. A few weeks add up to millions of years from his perspective. Black Mirror frequently riffs on the horror of eternity, and, in “White Christmas,” the extreme disjunction between objective clock time and Joe’s perception of time is brutally unnerving.
This plot device, common not only in science fiction but also intrinsic to fantasy worlds like Narnia, Neverland, and Wonderland, is called “Year Inside, Hour Outside.” A hero goes on fantastic adventures (or lives a mundane life, or suffers in perpetuity) while time stands relatively still. For now, YIHO is the stuff of fiction, a scintillating trope. But if Elon Musk and others are right about the reality-warping potential of neurotechnology, then YIHO may be in humanity’s future as well.
In 2016, Musk founded Neuralink, a secretive neurotechnology company developing implantable brain-computer interfaces. Inspired by the “neural lace” of science-fiction author Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, Musk dreams of souped-up brains with upgraded cognitive abilities. (He’s also a Rick and Morty superfan, regularly meme-ing about the show.) In Musk’s view, we’re already cyborgs, stretching our “digital tertiary selves” across an ever-growing number of devices. The ultimate threat of an omnipotent artificial intelligence demands that humanity augment or die.
Neuralink’s objectives and projected timelines—enthusiastically outlined by blogger Tim Urban, who interviewed Musk and his team in 2017—are wildly ambitious. Musk talks about pop-up displays in a person’s visual field, the ability to “download” knowledge, direct brain-to-brain communication (i.e., telepathy). However quixotic this sounds, Musk is far from alone in his optimism. Mark Zuckerberg is funding research into brain-computer interfaces in hopes of creating a “mind-reading machine,” a non-invasive device that would translate thoughts into digital interactions. Bryan Johnson, who sold his company Braintree for $800 million, is investing $100 million of his windfall into Kernel, a company “building a non-invasive mind/body/machine interface to radically improve and expand human cognition.”
It’s early days for this machinery. In the short term, companies like Neuralink and Kernel are focused on medical applications, aiming to help paraplegics and sufferers of Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s, and epilepsy. The crude technology uses electrode stimulation of a few hundred neurons to manipulate motor function or strengthen memory formation. The human brain contains more than 80 billion neurons. And higher-level functions—like those involved in planning, multi-tasking, creativity, memory—remain poorly understood.
In other words, true sci-fi wizardry is a long way off and may ultimately be a pipedream. Many of neurotech’s more ambitious aims fall into the realm of “theoretically possible but currently incomprehensible.” Yet the upside is immense. Even skeptics in the brain sciences—like David Eagleman, who balks at the idea of performing risky surgeries on otherwise healthy people—are glad that Musk and his cohort are attempting the improbable. One can chuckle at the mad scientist while checking his progress with a sideways glance.
Simply put, the brain is where everything happens. According to neuroscientist Anil Seth, reality is already a hallucination of the brain’s making. “Our experience of the world comes from the inside out, not just the outside in,” he said in a 2017 TED talk. As neurotechnologies open up our skulls and transform our hallucinations of reality, the most significant consequence may be something our fictions have already imagined: altered time perception à la YIHO. You can simply play the Roy simulation, over and over and over again—with your mindbody remaining right where it is. Year Inside, Hour Outside suggests a template for perceived rather than literal immortality. To develop a YIHO device, tomorrow’s Time Hackers can draw inspiration from the brain’s innate capacity to distort the passage of time.
People have long known that time perception is a mercurial phenomenon. Studies support the common-sense notion that time flies or crawls depending on a person’s activity. Lock yourself in a room with nothing to do and the hours seem to drag on forever. Time’s “flow” fluctuates. To pull off a fluctuation like YIHO would require a radical expansion of subjective time under an altered state of consciousness. Conveniently, dreams and drugs already meet this criteria and might provide crucial clues for developers of time-altering neural implants.
You’ve probably experienced temporal expansion while dreaming: the early-morning dream that seems to stretch on forever but actually unfolds in the precious minutes since you last hit the snooze button. “Five minutes in the real world gives you an hour in the dream,” says Arthur, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character in Inception. (Christopher Nolan seems fascinated with time dilation, also exploring the concept in Interstellar and Memento). Daniel Erlacher, a sleep researcher at Heidelberg University, speculates that prolonged durations of dreamtime “might be related to the lack of muscular feedback or slower neural processing during REM sleep.” But dreams, like so much of the mind, remain a mystery even to experts. For now, dreams point to the malleability of subjective time and suggest a roadmap for manipulating perceived duration. If a brain-computer interface can precisely record brain activity during particular dream states—and then artificially reproduce similar conditions—then tinkering with a person’s perception of time becomes feasible.
Psychoactive drugs—including marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, and ketamine—are also associated with dramatic expansions of perceived time. Whereas stimulants and alcohol seem to accelerate the passage of time, users of psychedelics and dissociatives often report experiences of time slowing down, dragging on, or stretching out indefinitely. In Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self, Marc Wittmann suggests that certain drugs “lengthen” our perception of time because they distort our experience of physical space. He writes that the “representation of time is linked to a functioning perception of space and body.” Intoxication alters the “neurophysiological processes that underpin the perception of time and space.”
Disrupt the comfortable unity of a mind/body existing within physical space, and time warps—for better or worse, as any psychonaut will tell you. Virtual environments could re-create the other-world quality of psychedelic experience, in which the rules of everyday life are frequently bent. As with dreams, the formula for time-altering implants remains the same: figure out which neural buttons to press and then stimulate the brain with the appropriate electrical/chemical signals. Observe the brain under extreme conditions and then mimic its activity.
The major hurdle is that time perception is complex, irreducible, and distributed across the brain and body. There is no one part of the brain associated with time, no single “inner clock.” In Your Brain Is A Time Machine, Dean Buonomano writes: “There is no organ of time, there are no time receptors in our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or skin.” Instead, time perception is born of a network of neural and bodily operations (including circulation, respiration, circadian rhythm) acting in concert. In other words, our sensation of time is a constant miracle.
However, neurotechnologists need not grasp all of time’s mysteries in order to manipulate it, just as lucid dreamers and acid-droppers can get their kicks without quite understanding how. The Time Hackers can make progress through steady experimentation.
Virtual reality delivered through a brain-computer interface—perhaps eventually foregoing the clunky headset—looks promising. Motor imagery-based interfaces have already been used to “control the steering of a virtual car, explore a virtual bar, or move along a virtual street or through a virtual flat,” according to an IEEE paper. As brain-computer interfaces and virtual reality co-evolve, so will our experience of time and space, with extraordinary consequences. What if, instead of a prison, Black Mirror’s Joe Potter were in paradise? What if, instead of a dystopia, the Matrix was an Elysium? As time-perception researcher Marc Wittmann tells me, “Virtual reality could allow us to create fantastic worlds—in a safe way, which you wouldn't get with drugs—in which memory content, which shapes your subjective sense of duration, could totally expand.” You could explore your own personal Narnia while the world is more or less on pause.
Mikhail Lebedev, a senior research scientist at Duke University’s Center for Neuroengineering, says that in order to manipulate subjective time, “one needs to modulate brain activity to make the brain work faster—then the world will slow down—or slower—then the world will accelerate. Theoretically, this could be achieved with transcranial stimulation or nootropics.” According to Lebedev, researchers are already exploring the neural basis of time perception, and virtual and augmented realities will allow for remarkable possibilities. “Imagine a VR/AR system that records the events in your visual environment but then replays them to you at a slower rate,” he says. “This could even be helpful for examining some details of a visual scene.” (An episode of Black Mirror, “The Entire History of You,” deals with this very idea.) Lebedev further suggests that “perhaps replaying your brain states to you at a slower speed could change the perception of time.”
Is this a Time Hacker’s dream come true or a smoky hall of mirrors? You might envision a slowed-down augmented reality, a slow-motion Mirrorworld, in which computer-chipped citizens move through life at half speed, or quarter speed, or a tenth of normal speed. Every day could last a lifetime under the influence of a Soma-esque euphoria. Except in this case the “drug” is an implanted computer chip.
That neurotech will pursue such a brave new world seems inevitable. Cracking the neural code of subjective time would allow the augmented not only more time to “live” but also more time to consume. Today’s engineers of entertainment and social media already take ample advantage of human brain chemistry. Provided they’re safe, brain implants aren’t a distant leap from our current situation, especially since science fiction has primed expectations. To borrow a memorable phrase from Thomas Disch, sci-fi has long supplied “the dreams our stuff is made of,” from iPads and credit cards to satellites and spaceships.
As neurotechnology improves and social mores shift, what sounds strange will become mundane, even as ethical dilemmas arise. (Would it be wrong for a student to spend 30 simulated hours to one real-world hour learning calculus? What about thirty simulated years?) Complications aside, wouldn’t you buy yourself more time if you could?
In a sense, you already can. Researchers of time perception agree that the best approach to extending one’s perceived lifetime is to frequently try new things. We remember what’s novel to us, and more memories are associated with more subjective time. This is why, in hindsight, a week-long vacation seems so much larger than a typical work week.
But it’s human nature to want even more. The future of neurotechnology will be driven by primitive desires: above all, by the desire to survive, whether in this world or another. Year Inside, Hour Outside promises a virtual heaven on earth. Or a mediated hell of hollow images and blurred hours. It all depends on how you look at it.