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Study: Our Momentary Perception of Time May Stretch or Shrink with Each Heartbeat

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The role of the heart in the experience of time has been long theorized but empirical evidence is scarce. In new research, scientists from Cornell University and the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health examined the interaction between the momentary experience of subsecond intervals and heartbeat.

Sadeghi et al. examined the interaction between fine-grained cardiac dynamics and the momentary experience of subsecond intervals. Image credit: M. Weiss / Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“Our research builds evidence that the heart is one of the brain’s important timekeepers and plays a fundamental role in our sense of time passing — an idea contemplated since ancient times,” said Cornell University’s Professor Adam Anderson, senior author on the study.

“Time is a dimension of the Universe and a core basis for our experience of self.”

“Our research shows that the moment-to-moment experience of time is synchronized with, and changes with, the length of a heartbeat.”

“Time perception typically has been tested over longer intervals, when research has shown that thoughts and emotions may distort our sense time, perhaps making it fly or crawl.”

“Such findings tend to reflect how we think about or estimate time, rather than our direct experience of it in the present moment.”

To investigate that more direct experience, Professor Anderson and his colleagues asked if our perception of time is related to physiological rhythms, focusing on natural variability in heart rates.

The cardiac pacemaker ‘ticks’ steadily on average, but each interval between beats is a tiny bit longer or shorter than the preceding one, like a second hand clicking at different intervals.

The study authors harnessed that variability in a novel experiment that involved 45 participants (18 to 21 years old, with no history of heart trouble).

The volunteers were monitored with electrocardiography (ECG), measuring heart electrical activity at millisecond resolution.

The ECG was linked to a computer, which enabled brief tones lasting 80-180 milliseconds to be triggered by heartbeats.

The participants reported whether tones were longer or shorter relative to others.

The results revealed what the researchers called temporal wrinkles: when the heartbeat preceding a tone was shorter, the tone was perceived as longer; when the preceding heartbeat was longer, the sound’s duration seemed shorter.

“These observations systematically demonstrate that the cardiac dynamics, even within a few heartbeats, is related to the temporal decision-making process,” the scientists said.

The study also showed the brain influencing the heart: after hearing tones, the participants focused attention on the sounds; that ‘orienting response’ changed their heart rate, affecting their experience of time.

“The heartbeat is a rhythm that our brain is using to give us our sense of time passing. And that is not linear — it is constantly contracting and expanding,” Professor Anderson said.

According to the team, the connection between time perception and the heart suggests our momentary perception of time is rooted in bioenergetics, helping the brain manage effort and resources based on changing body states including heart rate.

“The research shows that in subsecond intervals too brief for conscious thoughts or feelings, the heart regulates our experience of the present,” Professor Anderson said.

“Even at these moment-to-moment intervals, our sense of time is fluctuating. A pure influence of the heart, from beat to beat, helps create a sense of time.”

The study was published in the journal Psychophysiology.


Saeedeh Sadeghi et al. Wrinkles in subsecond time perception are synchronized to the heart. Psychophysiology, published online March 2, 2023; doi: 10.1111/psyp.14270

Source : Breaking Science News

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