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Sense of time

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Sense of time

Time perception is a field of study within psychology and neuroscience that refers to one's subjective experience of time, which is measured by one's own perception of the duration of the indefinite and continuous unfolding of events. Another person's perception of time cannot be directly experienced or understood, but it can be objectively studied and understood through a number of scientific experiments. Time perception is a construction of the brain that can be manipulated and distorted due to a variety of phenomenon.

Pioneering work, emphasizing species-specific differences, was done by Karl Ernst von Baer. Experimental work began under the influence of the psycho-physical notions of Gustav Theodor Fechner with studies of the relationship between perceived and measured time.


William J. Friedman also contrasted two theories for a sense of time:[1]

  • The strength model of time memory. This posits a memory trace that persists over time, by which one might judge the age of a memory (and therefore how long ago the event remembered occurred) from the strength of the trace. This conflicts with the fact that memories of recent events may fade more quickly than more distant memories.
  • The inference model suggests the time of an event is inferred from information about relations between the event in question and other events whose date or time is known.

Associated brain regions

Although one's perception of time is not associated with a specific sensory system, psychologists and neuroscientists suggest that humans do have a system governing the perception of time.[2] It is composed of a highly distributed system involving the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia . One particular component, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, is responsible for the circadian (or daily) rhythm, while other cell clusters appear to be capable of shorter-range (ultradian) timekeeping.

Two visual stimuli, inside one's field of view, can be successfully regarded as simultaneous down to five milliseconds. One's visual temporal order judgement can be accurately assessed down to twenty-millisecond resolutions.

Different types of sensory information (auditory, tactile, visual, etc.) are processed at different speeds by different neural architectures. The brain must learn how to overcome these speed disparities, if it is to create a temporally unified representation of the external world. This characteristic of the brain is referred to as temporal binding. Not only does the brain temporally coordinate among different senses, but also among different sensory modalities. For example, for vision, this would include a coordination between an objects' edges, motion, angles, color, etc..

In the popular essay "Brain Time", by David Eagleman, he suggests that "if the visual brain wants to get events correct timewise, it may have only one choice: wait for the slowest information to arrive. To accomplish this, it must wait about a tenth of a second. In the early days of television broadcasting, engineers worried about the problem of keeping audio and video signals synchronized. Then they accidentally discovered that they had around a hundred milliseconds of slop: As long as the signals arrived within this window, viewers' brains would automatically resynchronize the signals". He goes on to say that "This brief waiting period allows the visual system to discount the various delays imposed by the early stages; however, it has the disadvantage of pushing perception into the past. There is a distinct survival advantage to operating as close to the present as possible; an animal does not want to live too far in the past. Therefore, the tenth-of- a-second window may be the smallest delay that allows higher areas of the brain to account for the delays created in the first stages of the system while still operating near the border of the present. This window of delay means that awareness is postdictive, incorporating data from a window of time after an event and delivering a retrospective interpretation of what happened."[3]

The human brains' visual cortex is more active when an individual attempts to estimate the duration of a visual stimulus. The primary motor cortex is more active when an individual attempts to estimate the duration needed to complete a specific action. The auditory cortex is more active when an individual attempts to estimate the duration of a given sound stimulus.-- and so on.

Experiments have shown that rats can successfully estimate a time interval of ~ 40 seconds, despite having their cortex entirely removed. This suggests that time estimation may be a low level (subcortical) process.[4][5]

Specious present

Main article: Specious present

The specious present is the time duration wherein a state of consciousness is experienced as being in the present.[6] The term was first introduced by the philosopher E. R. Clay (E. Robert Kelly).[7][8] and further developed by William James.[8] James defined the specious present to be "the prototype of all conceived times... the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible". C. D. Broad in "Scientific Thought" (1930) further elaborated on the concept of the specious present, and considered that the Specious Present may be considered as the temporal equivalent of a sensory datum.[8] A version of the concept was used by Edmund Husserl in his works and discussed further by Francisco Varela based on the writings of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty.[9]

Types of temporal illusions

A temporal illusion is a distortion in one's perception of time that occurs when the time interval between two or more events is very narrow (typically less than a second). In such cases, a person may momentarily perceive time as slowing down, stopping, speeding up, or running backwards. Additionally, a person may misperceive the temporal order of these events.

  • Short list of basic temporal illusions
    • People tend to recall recent events as occurring further back in time than they actually did (backward telescoping) and distant events as occurring more recently than they actually did (forward telescoping).[10]
    • A series of static images on a screen creates the illusion of a smoothly flowing scene when the frame rate is greater than 10 to 12 separate images per second.

Kappa effect

The Kappa effect is a form of temporal illusion verifiable by experiment,[11] wherein the temporal duration between a sequence of consecutive stimuli is thought to be relatively longer or shorter than its actual elapsed time, due to the spatial/auditory/tactile separation between each consecutive stimuli. The kappa effect can be displayed when considering a journey made in two parts that take an equal amount of time. Between these two parts, the journey that covers more distance may appear to take longer than the journey covering less distance, even though they take an equal amount of time.

Stopped clock illusion

The stopped clock illusion, also known as chronostasis, is when the seconds hand of a clock appears to freeze in place for a short period of time after a person initially looks at it.[12] Later it was found that saccadic eye movements could cause compression of time as well as space.[13] Terao, Watanabe, Yagi, & Nishida (2005) were able to show that reducing the visibility of a flash by means of dimming was sufficient in reducing time interval estimation.[14] Taken together these findings suggest that when vision is tainted in some way, as in the case of a saccade when vision is blurred or in the case of a dimmed flash when the flash is harder to identify, that time perception is also affected.

The oddball effect

Another temporal illusion, called the "oddball effect", occurs when a person perceives an unusual stimuli through the senses that appears to be a potential threat or mate. Research suggests that time seems to slow down when a person skydives or bungee jumps,[15] or when a person suddenly and unexpectedly senses the presence of a potential predator or mate. This reported slowing in one's temporal perception may have been evolutionarily advantageous because it may have enhanced our ability to intelligibly make quick decisions in moments that were of critical importance to our survival. However, even though observers commonly report that time seems to have moved in slow motion during these events, it is unknown whether this is a function of increased time resolution during the event, or instead an illusion of remembering an emotionally salient event.

Research conducted by David Eagleman has suggested that time does not actually run in slow motion for a person during a life-threatening event, but, rather, it is only a retrospective assessment that brings that person to such a conclusion. To bring this into the realm of scientific study, he measured time perception during free-fall by strapping palm-top computers to subjects' wrists and having them perform psychophysical experiments as they fall. By measuring their speed of information intake, they concluded that participants do not obtain increased temporal resolution during the fall, but, instead, because their memories are more densely packed during a frightening situation, the event seems to have taken longer only in retrospect.[16]

Effects of emotional states

The perception of another persons' emotions can also change our sense of time. The theory of embodied mind (or cognition), as caused by mirror neurons, helps explain how the perception of other people's emotions have the ability to change one's own sense of time. Embodied cognition hinges on an internal process that mimics or simulates another's emotional state. For example, if person #1 spends time with person #2 who speaks and walks incredibly slow, person #1's internal clock may slow down.

Recent research, conducted by General Atlantic professor of marketing at the Stanford GSB and Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota, has found that the feeling of awe has the ability to expand one's perceptions of time availability. Awe is an experience of perceptual vastness that increases one's focus in the present moment by inspiring a desire to interpret and form new knowledge structures. Consequently, it is conceivable that one's temporal perception would slow down when experiencing awe.[17]

Emotions may speed up or slow down our perception of time. Changes in the emotional state of subjects caused by watching films affected their sense of time. Students extracts from horror films known to induce fear. A third category of "neutral" footage (weather forecasts or stock market updates) was also shown. They then asked students to estimate the duration of a visual stimulus and it was often an overestimate of the elapsed time. Fear prompted a state of arousal in the amygdala, which speeded up the rate of the subjects' internal clocks. It reflects a defensive mechanism triggered by a threatening situation, in which one must quickly decide whether or not to attack or run away from a threat. The psychologists observed this similar tendency to overestimate the elapsed time in three-year-old children when exposed to a threat.[18]

Changes with aging

Psychologists have found that the subjective perception of the passing of time tends to speed up with increasing age in humans. This often causes people to increasingly underestimate a given interval of time as they age. This fact can likely be attributed to a variety of of age-related changes in the aging brain, such as the lowering in dopaminergic levels with older age; however, the details are still being debated.[19][20][21] In an experimental study involving a group of subjects aged between 19 and 24 and a group between 60 and 80 had compared their ability to estimate 3 minutes of time. The study found that that the younger group's estimate was on average 3 minutes and 3 seconds while the older group averaged 3 minutes and 40 seconds.[22][23]

Very young children literally "live in time" before gaining an awareness of its passing. A child will first experience the passing of time when he or she can subjectively perceive and reflect on the unfolding of a collection of events. A child's awareness of time develops during childhood when the child's attention and short-term memory capacities form—this developmental process is thought to be dependent on the slow maturation of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.[24]

One day to an eleven-year-old would be approximately 1/4,000 of their life, while one day to a 55-year-old would be approximately 1/20,000 of their life. This helps to explain why a random day may therefore appear longer for a young child than for an adult.[25] The common explanation is that most external and internal experiences are new and novel for young children while most experiences are repetitive for adults. Children have to be extremely engaged (i.e., dedicate many neural resources or much brain power) in the present moment because they must constantly reconfigure their mental models of the world to assimilate it and properly behave within it. On the contrary, adults may fall into mental habits and external routines that they rarely step outside of. When an adult frequently experiences this overstimulation of same stimuli, their brain renders it "invisible" because the brain has already sufficiently and effectively mapped it- a phenomenon known as neural adaptation. Thus, one's brain will record less densely-rich memories during these frequent periods of disengagement from the present moment.[26] Consequently, one's subjective perception of time often passes by at a faster rate with age.

Effects of psychoactive substances

Psychoactive drugs can alter one's judgement of time. These include traditional psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline as well as the dissociative class of psychedelics such as PCP, ketamine and dextromethorphan. At higher doses time may appear to slow down, speed up or seem out of sequence. In a 2007 study by Wittman et al., psilocybin was found to significantly impair one's ability to reproduce interval durations longer than 2.5 seconds, significantly impair synchronizing motor actions (taps on a computer keyboard) to regularly occurring tones, and impair one's ability to keep tempo when asked to tap on a key at a self paced but consistent interval.[27] In 1955, British MP Christopher Mayhew took mescaline hydrochloride in an experiment under the guidance of his friend, Dr Humphry Osmond. On the BBC documentary The Beyond Within, he described that half a dozen times during the experiment, he had "a period of time that didn't end for [him]".

Stimulants can lead both humans and rats to overestimate time intervals,[28][29] while depressants can have the opposite effect.[30] The level of activity in the brain of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine may be the reason for this.[31]

Effects of meditation

Researchers at the University of Kent in Canterbury, Kent, UK have increasingly focused on the benefits of meditation in everyday life and performance. Mindfulness in particular improves attention, working memory capacity, and reading comprehension. Given its emphasis on moment-to-moment awareness, they noticed that mindfulness meditation would alter time perception. The Researchers had participants carry out a temporal bisection task, where several probe durations are compared to "short" and "long" standards. Following this, participants either listened to an audiobook or a meditation that focused on the movement of breath in the body. Finally, participants completed the temporal bisection task for a second time. The control group obviously showed no change after the listening task. However, meditation led to a relative overestimation of durations.[32]

Effects of body temperature

Experimental results have suggested that body temperature as body temperature rises, one's perception of time speeds up. Conversely, as body temperature lowers, one's sense of time slows down.[33]

Reversal of temporal perception judgment

Numerous experimental findings suggest that temporal order judgments of actions and effects can be reversed under special circumstances. Experiments have shown that sensory simultaneity judgments can be manipulated by repeated exposure to non-simultaneous stimuli. In an experiment conducted by David Eagleman, a temporal order judgment reversal was induced in subjects by exposing them to delayed motor consequences. In the experiment, subjects played various forms of video games. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the experimenters introduced a fixed delay between the mouse movements and the subsequent sensory feedback. For example, a subject may not see a movement register on the screen until 150 milliseconds after the mouse had moved. Participants playing the game quickly adapted to the delay and felt as though there was less delay between their mouse movement and the sensory feedback. When the experimenters finally removed the delay, the subjects commonly felt as though the effect on the screen happened just before they commanded it. This work addresses how the perceived timing of effects is modulated by expectations, and the extent to which such predictions are quickly modifiable.[34]

Numerous experimental findings also suggest that temporal order judgement of a pair of tactile stimuli, delivered in rapid succession, one to each hand, is noticeably impaired (i.e., misreported) by crossing the hands over the midline. However, congenitally blind subjects showed no trace of temporal order judgement reversal after crossing the arms. These results suggest that tactile signals taken in by the congenitally blind are ordered in time without being referred to a visuo-spatial representation. Unlike the congenitally blind subjects, the temporal order judgements of the late-onset blind subjects were impaired when crossing the arms to a similar extent as non-blind subjects. These results suggest that the associations between tactile signals and visuo-spatial representation is maintained once it is accomplished during infancy. Some research studies have also found that the subjects showed reduced deficit in tactile temporal order judgements when the arms were crossed behind their arms than when they were crossed in front.[35][36][37]

Effects of clinical disorders

Parkinson's disease,[38] schizophrenia,[39] and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)[40] have been linked to abnormalities in dopamine levels in the brain as well as to noticeable impairments in time perception. Neuropharmacological research indicates that the internal clock, used to time durations in the seconds-to-minutes range, is linked to dopamine function in the basal ganglia.[39] Studies in which children with ADHD are given time estimation tasks shows that time passes very slowly for them. Children with Tourette’s Syndrome, for example, who need to use the pre-frontal cortex just behind the forehead to help them control their tics, are better at estimating intervals of time just over a second than other children.

In his book "Awakenings", Oliver Sacks discusses how patients with Parkinson's disease experience deficits in their awareness of time and tempo. For example, Mr E, when asked to clap his hands steadily and regularly did so for the first few claps before clapping faster and irregularly; culminating in an apparent freezing of motion. When he finished, Mr E asked if his observers were glad he did it correctly to which they replied "no". Mr E was offended by this because to him, his claps were regular and steady. When given L-DOPA, these deficits are lessened or subside entirely depending on the dose. This case not only shows that Parkinson's disease is related to time perception deficits but it also demonstrates how dopamine is involved.[41]

Dopamine is also theorized to play a role in the attention deficits present with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Specifically, dopaminergic systems are involved in working memory and inhibitory processes, both of which are believed central to ADHD pathology.[40] Children with ADHD have also been found to be significantly impaired on time discrimination tasks (telling the difference between two stimuli of different temporal lengths) and respond earlier on time reproduction tasks (duplicating the duration of a presented stimulus) than normal controls.[42]

Along with other perceptual abnormalities, it has been noted by psychologists that schizophrenia patients have an altered sense of time. This was first described in psychology by Minkowski in 1927.[43] Many schizophrenic patients stop perceiving time as a flow of causally linked events. It has been suggested that there is usually a delay in time perception in schizophrenic patients compared to normal subjects.

These defects in time perception may play a part in the hallucinations and delusions experienced by schizophrenic patients according to some studies. Some researchers suggest that "abnormal timing judgment leads to a deficit in action attribution and action perception."[43]

See also


Further reading

  • Le Poidevin, Robin, "The Experience and Perception of Time", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Hodder, A. (1901). The adversaries of the sceptic; or, The specious present, a new inquiry into human knowledge. Chapter II, The Specious Present. London: S. Sonnenschein &. Pages 36 – 56.

External links

  • Time perception research at the University of Manchester
  • "A Cognitive Model of Retrospective Duration Estimations", Hee-Kyung Ahn, et al., March 7, 2006.
  • , 2003/2004.
  • Can Time Slow Down?
  • , Vol 275 No 7376 p644, 19 November 2005 Registration required.
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