Knowing Neurons
CognitionConsciousness

How does understanding time perception help us advance cognitive science?

by Vincent A. Medina

We have all experienced time flying when we are happy and having fun. Conversely, everyone knows how slowly time can drag on when we feel bored and sad. The crucial difference between “clock time” and subjective time is that the latter is intimately linked to cognitive processes. The examples in the beginning of this article hint at emotion as a predictive factor in how we experience time. A classic model of time perception (Zakay & Block, 1995) can explain the relevance of various emotions, proposing that a fundamental cognitive process involved (that is heavily implicated in emotional processing) is attention. The more engaged one is, the more time seems to speed up due to the fewer mental resources left over for tracking the passage of time. This model presents an angle for better understanding time perception that some researchers have expanded upon. While it is important for cognitive science to expand upon current understanding of time perception, further investigating time perception helps break ground in fields of cognitive science concerning humans and non-human animals as well.

…time perception is responsible for how we remember events as distinct experiences…

Why should cognitive scientists investigate time perception in humans? The greatest reason to do so is that it involves a wide range of cognitive processes. At the most immediate level, it is linked to daily productivity in terms of time management and success under time pressure. On a deeper level, time perception is responsible for how we remember events as distinct experiences despite our daily lives unfolding in a continuous stream (Clewett et al., 2019). It is important to investigate this because time perception can frequently distort memory: Clewett et al. (2019) presents a hypothetical scenario of a torturous commute being perceived as occurring longer than the time it takes to eat breakfast even when both events have the same duration. This aligns with an attention-based model of time perception: a boring commute is unengaging, which leaves much of one’s attentional resources available to focus on the passage of time. Time perception is also related to neurological and psychiatric conditions that affect attention (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Specifically, distortions in time perception are associated with a number of neurological and psychiatric conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and autism (Allman & Meck, 2012). Further, one article even refers to time perception as the “missing link” in theories of consciousness (Kent & Wittmann, 2021). That is, modern knowledge about consciousness revolves around brief moments in time rather than conscious experiences over extended periods of time. It is possible that our understanding about the fundamental aspects of experienced reality, which are built upon theories of consciousness, could be enhanced with greater consideration for time.

More broadly, time perception is important to understand because it can serve as a public mental health indicator. This was most apparent in societal temporal disintegration during the COVID-19 pandemic (Holman et al., 2022). “Temporal disintegration” refers to impaired sequential thinking and a general disconnect from the continuity of time. The authors found that out of the thousands of Americans involved in their study, over 50% reported multiple temporal disintegration experiences during the first 6 months of the pandemic. According to the authors, their findings on temporal disintegration caused by collective trauma are broadly consistent with an attention-based model of time perception in that strained attention can create shifts in perceived time. Future research should move beyond small study designs in order to help provide important large-scale inferences about the state of society based on time perception.

Understanding time perception is just as important in non-human animals. Many behaviors in the wild are reliant on careful timing (Ng et al., 2021). Prominent behaviors include foraging, predator avoidance, navigation, and communication. Using one organism as an example for each: bumblebees that are foraging change decision-making speed based on perceived threats, fiddler crabs adjust the amount of time they spend in hiding based on the distance of predators, parasitoid wasps navigate distance from their host eggs using time instead of steps, and African clawed frogs use signals with particular rhythmic structures over time when communicating about sexual identity. Despite what we know about the adaptive importance of time sense, Ng et al. (2021) provide several recommendations for future research in order to better understand time perception in non-human animals. The recommendations were to check: (1) if animals that demonstrate interval timing in the laboratory do so in the real world or if they place greater reliance on non-temporal cues instead, (2) if factors that influence timing in humans (e.g., attention) influence timing in animals differently, (3) how interval timing varies across situational contexts, (4) how timing varies between species in the same genus, and (5) how interval timing works in understudied species (e.g., organisms that are not mammals or birds).

…[psychological timing] has an important ripple effect on understanding how organisms perceive the world around them.

It is understandable that time perception is not central to cognitive science given that research on the topic is associated with puzzling barriers. Still, a renaissance has taken place in recent years as cognitive scientists have paved the way to overcome these barriers, and the importance of continuing this momentum in time perception research — despite the challenges — cannot be understated. Psychological timing is an essential part of life and survival for both humans and non-human animals, and investigating it as best as we can has an important ripple effect on understanding how organisms perceive the world around them.

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Written by Vincent A. Medina
Illustrated by Sumana Shrestha
Edited by Honoreé Brewton and Zoe Dobler

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Cartoon showing unhappy person with pause symbol versus happy people with fast forward symbol
References

Allman, M. J., & Meck, W. H. (2012). Pathophysiological distortions in time perception and timed performance. Brain, 135(3), 656-677. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awr210.

Clewett, D., DuBrow, S., & Davachi, L. (2019). Transcending time in the brain: How event memories are constructed from experience. Hippocampus, 29(3), 162-183. https://doi.org/10.1002/hipo.23074.

Holman, E. A., Jones, N. M., Garfin, D. R., & Silver, R. C. (2022). Distortions in time perception during collective trauma: Insights from a national longitudinal study during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0001326.

Kent, L., & Wittmann, M. (2021). Time consciousness: the missing link in theories of consciousness. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2021(2), niab011. https://doi.org/10.1093/nc/niab011.

Ng, L., Garcia, J. E., Dyer, A. G., & Stuart‐Fox, D. (2021). The ecological significance of time sense in animals. Biological Reviews, 96(2), 526-540. https://doi.org/10.1111/brv.12665.

Zakay, D., & Block, R. A. (1995). An attentional-gate model of prospective time estimation. Time and the Dynamic Control of Behavior, 5, 167-178.

Author

  • Vincent A Medina

    Vincent is a Cognitive and Brain Sciences PhD student at Louisiana State University. His research interests are in sound, space, and time perception. He previously earned an Aging Sciences B.S. from the University of South Florida, then an Experimental Psychology M.S. with a focus in cognitive neuroscience from Seton Hall University. He has also been an intern for both the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory at NASA Stennis Space Center and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

Vincent Medina photo

Vincent A Medina

Vincent is a Cognitive and Brain Sciences PhD student at Louisiana State University. His research interests are in sound, space, and time perception. He previously earned an Aging Sciences B.S. from the University of South Florida, then an Experimental Psychology M.S. with a focus in cognitive neuroscience from Seton Hall University. He has also been an intern for both the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory at NASA Stennis Space Center and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.