“Timing is everything,” is a well-known phrase that refers to the fact that being in the right place at the right time is as important to success as to specific actions. And, it turns out, that timing really is critical to how we perceive the world as well as how we act in it. Such timing mechanisms are now shown to be very important and have a critical role to play in everything from the treatment of sensory disorders to the mastery of sports performance.

Life really does have a rhythm. This is apparent in speech where each language has its own rhythm and one of the biggest difficulties for people trying to learn a “foreign” language is learning its rhythm. Typically, the rhythm of a new, foreign language is not the same as our native one and that creates a problem in the perception of sounds and specifically phonemes, thus making it difficult to decipher words. However, it’s not only language that has its own rhythm. Timing and sequence are important in many aspects of sensory processing. For example, let’s suppose you hear the sound of a falling tree. The sequence by which the sound is sensed in your right and left ears gives your brain important information about the location of the sound. If the sound arrives a few milliseconds in the left rather than the right ear, the brain has important information that the source of the sound is spatially oriented more towards the left than the right.

Almost all of these timing and sequence differences are processed subconsciously and they are particularly relevant to sound location and interpretation. However they are not limited to just sound processing. All sensory inputs are subject to timing effects.

The brain has an intuitive sense of timing and such timing is responsible for many aspects of our behavior not just sensory processing. For example, on a larger scale, our ‘biological clock’ controls many aspects of our body including energy patterns. The typical pattern for energy during the day is as follows. We wake up at the beginning of the day with modest energy levels and these build as the morning wears on, reaching a peak around late morning. Then energy starts to wane, reaching a low around four in the afternoon. This is why many countries have a siesta and the British instituted the ritual of afternoon caffeine — known as tea. This energy drop doesn’t occur because of what you have eaten for lunch, although a high sugar meal can certainly make the energy drop more severe. Energy picks up again in the late afternoon before dropping again in mid evening and on towards bedtime.

Timing can also be responsible for anything from clumsy behavior in special needs children to sporting errors in star athletes. Behavioral routines, like for example catching a ball, are housed in the motor cortex in the brain. Here, the sequence of actions needed to catch a ball, are encoded. This sequence includes instructions on how to judge the flight of the ball, where to position your body, how to reach out for the ball, when to clasp your hands shut, and so on. The program is there but performance depends on the sequence being acted out in the right timing, or in the right rhythm. Just like a computer program is a series of instructions that have to be carried out in the right sequence, so do motor actions. If the components of a programmed movement aren’t carried out in the right timing, they will appear uncoordinated. It might not be the individual components of the motor program that are the problem but rather the timing of their execution. This is often the case with elite sports stars who are in a slump, where for one reason or another, their timing of execution is thrown off.

There has been some recent research to strongly suggest that the lack of coordination seen in many people with sensory and even other disorders is indeed due to lack of proper timing and sequencing brought about by poor rhythm. Some disorders where this seems to be a critical mechanism include ADHD, dyslexia, Parkinson’s, Auditory Processing Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury and Alzheimer’s.

When there’s a timing problem in the brain, whether we’re talking about psychiatric conditions or elite sports performance, simple repetition of the behavior is not necessarily going to help the problem, as it’s likely that repetition will simply repeat, and maybe even reinforce, the wrong timing of the execution of the behavior. Moreover, using cognitive approaches to make people more aware of their timing issues isn’t likely to help either because timing mechanisms are beyond conscious control. To rectify this problem, one has to specifically work on changing the timing and sequencing of the tasks.

The Interactive Metronome® (IM) is one such tool that works specifically on improving timing. The IM retrains the timing mechanism in the brain resulting in better sequencing and more effective execution. The principle is the retraining of timing and the Interactive Metronome® can be introduced into almost any activity to help retrain the brain’s timing mechanism.

Moreover, retraining the brain’s timing can lead to an increase in the speed of processing and such skills as working memory and attention. For example, imagine if your focus speed was slowed down for one reason or another. Slowing down your ability to pay attention would affect sensory processing and sequencing and even your memory. In one study, researchers showed that using the Interactive Metronome® improved reading achievement. The researchers attributed the improvement to changes in thinking speed, which allowed the students to more quickly process and remember what they had read. The researchers specifically say that such improvement in attention and memory underpins many of the advantages of the IM.

Timing and rhythm therefore are central parts of our experience and behavior. Future research will no doubt reveal the many ways timing influences the brain and different approaches to improve rhythmicity and sequencing. This will be especially helpful for those suffering with sensory disorders.

For more information about the Interactive Metronome® please check www.interactivemetronome.com