Prof. Peter Balsam: Timing is Everything

psychology Timing is everything, according to Peter Balsam. The professor of psychology and Samuel L. Milbank Chair spoke to a packed crowd at Barnard Hall on January 26 as he delivered the Faculty Research Lecture about his life’s work: studying the profound relationship between time and all of our actions and perceptions.

According to Balsam, thought and behavior are organized in relation to time. “Time is a fundamental part of our perceptions and experiences,” he said. Everything we do—from picking up a glass of water to the daily rhythms of eating and sleeping—relies on timed signals from the body and brain that convey information about the right time to do it. The brain allows us to organize the temporal structure of our actions and physiology on scales ranging from milliseconds to days.

Like the air we breathe, we are not often aware of time, but it is the infrastructure for all of our everyday functions. When these mechanisms become disordered or fail to offer temporal information to guide our behavior, they can contribute to the symptoms of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, mood disorders, and substance abuse. For example, a depressed person can’t anticipate that something good will eventually happen. A schizophrenic person may experience time as standing still or speeding up. 

One research area Balsam highlighted was his work on dopamine D2 receptors in the brain. Patients with schizophrenia have a variant of these receptors, resulting in a lack of “anticipatory motivation” and willingness to expend effort. He studied this variant in animal models, examining mice’s ability to anticipate future rewards, which is key to healthy everyday function. The motivational system “cranks up the willingness to engage in goal-directed activity,” Balsam said. This work showed how studying timing and anticipation in animal models can be harnessed to suggest new treatment strategies. 

Balsam arrived at Barnard in 1975 and since then has published over 100 journal articles. Beloved as a teacher, mentor, and passionate researcher, he has worked with dozens of graduate students and 150 Barnard and Columbia undergraduates. He is a fellow of the American Society for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychological Society and is a past president of the Pavlovian Society.

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