Recently, however, scientists have flipped this thinking on its head. 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 seems that we entrain ourselves to the world's rhythms:
This is not to say that the brain dances to its own beat, dragging perception along for the ride. In fact, it seems to work the other way around: 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.
Consider a study that I conducted with my colleagues, forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science. We 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.