Prefrontal cortex, time and consciousness


A central feature of consciousness is the ability to control the fourth dimension, time. Humans can effortlessly move their internal mental set from the present moment to a past remembrance and just as easily project themselves into a future event. It is proposed that this capacity to extract oneself from the present and fluidly move forward or backward in time is dependent on the evolution of the human prefrontal cortex. Prefrontal cortex modulates activity in multi-modal association and limbic cortices through widely distributed inhibitory and excitatory pathways. Prefrontal cortex also has a selective bias to novelty, crucial for detecting change and hence for the correct temporal coding of events. These extensive modulatory pathways coupled with an intrinsic link to temporal coding provide a mechanism for rapid engagement of distributed neural networks critical for seamless transitions through the time continuum. Support for this hypothesis is found in the fact that prefrontal damage results in a failure in the ability to extract oneself from the present. Indeed, the hallmark of the severe prefrontal syndrome is persevatory and stimulus-bound behavior--a classic example of a failure in temporal control.