Right now, your brain is subconsciously keeping track of the passage of time, allowing you to focus on more important things. This happens automatically, but not all the time.
And the brain’s perception of time can fluctuate, with some moments appearing to expand or contract with each objective second.
And while these changes in time may be a distortion of reality, technically it’s not all in your head. And according to a new study, some of them come from your heart.
Adam K. Anderson, senior author and professor of psychology at Cornell University, says that the heartbeat sets the pace for our perception of time, explaining the key role the heart plays in helping us keep track of time.
“Time is a dimension of the universe and the fundamental basis of our sense of self,” Anderson says. “Our research shows that the instantaneous experience of time is synchronized with the duration of the heartbeat and changes in accordance with it.”
The researchers say these differences in time perception – or “temporal aberrations” – are normal and may be adaptive. Previous research has also explored their origins, suggesting that thoughts and emotions can distort our sense of time, making certain moments appear to expand or contract.
For example, in a study last year, Anderson and colleagues found that VR train rides seem to take longer for commuters when the simulated trains are crowded.
Anderson says a lot of previous research has focused on visualizing relatively long periods of time, and so tends to reveal more about how people value time than how they directly experience the moment.
To shed more light on the latter, the new study looked for links between time perception and bodily rhythms, with a focus on natural fluctuations in heart rate. Although the overall heart rate seems to be constant, each individual heartbeat may be slightly shorter or longer than the previous one.
Research has shown that the heartbeat can influence our perception of external stimuli, and it has long been suggested that the heart helps the brain keep track of time.
To participate in the study, the researchers recruited 45 undergraduate students at Cornell University, aged 18 to 21, with normal hearing acuity and no history of heart disease.
They used an electrocardiogram (ECG) to monitor heart activity to the millisecond and linked the ECG to a computer that played back the short tones generated by a person’s heartbeat.
Each tone lasted only 80 to 180 milliseconds, and after hearing one, subjects were asked to report whether it lasted longer or shorter than the others.
The researchers say the results show temporary changes in performance. Subjects noted that the tones were longer when the tones preceded the shorter heart beats, and it was reported that the tones were shorter when the tones followed the longer heart beats.
“The heartbeat is the rhythm our brain uses to give us a sense of the flow of time,” Anderson says. “It’s non-linear—it’s constantly contracting and expanding.”
The researchers note that while the heart can have a significant impact on the brain’s perception of time, it’s a two-way street. Upon hearing the tone, the subjects focused their attention on the sound, an “orientation response”, which in turn altered their heart rate and altered their experience over time.
A false perception of the passage of time can seem like something bad, and sometimes it is. But while losing track of time can lead to problems, the temporal changes identified in this study may also have adaptive benefits.
The researchers add that the heart appears to help the brain work more efficiently with limited resources by influencing how it perceives the passage of time on the smallest scales, operating on timescales too short for conscious thoughts or feelings.
“Even in these gaps of time, our sense of time fluctuates,” Anderson says. “The pure action of the heart, from beat to beat, helps create a sense of time.”
The study was published in the journal Psychophysiology.
Source: Science Alert
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