Right now, your brain is tracking the passage of time without you being aware of it, allowing you to focus on better things like reading this story.
This happens automatically, but not systematically. The brain’s perception of time can fluctuate, with certain moments appearing to stretch or shrink relative to each objective second.
While these wrinkles in time may be distortions of reality, technically they’re not all in your head. According to a new study, some come from your heart.
According to Adam K. Anderson, lead author and professor of psychology at Cornell University, heartbeats dictate the rhythm of time perception, illustrating the key role our heart plays in helping us keep track of time.
“Time is a dimension of the universe and an essential basis of our experience of self,” says Anderson. “Our research shows that the moment-to-moment experience of time is synchronized and changes with the duration of a heartbeat.”
These variations in the perception of time – or “time ripples” – are normal, say the researchers, and can be adaptive. Previous research has also explored their origins, suggesting that thoughts and emotions can distort our sense of time, causing certain moments to appear to expand or contract.
In a study last year, for example, Anderson and his colleagues found that virtual reality train rides seemed to last longer for passengers when the simulated trains were more crowded.
But many previous studies have focused on the perception of relatively long time intervals, Anderson says, and therefore tend to reveal more about how people estimate time than how they experience it directly in the body. instant.
To shed some light on the latter, the new study looked for links between the perception of time and body rhythms, with a focus on natural fluctuations in heart rate. While the overall rate of a heart seems stable, each individual beat may be slightly shorter or longer than the last.
Research has shown that heartbeats can influence our perception of external stimuli, and the heart has long been believed to help the brain keep time.
The researchers recruited 45 Cornell undergraduate students to participate in the study, all between the ages of 18 and 21 with normal hearing acuity and no history of heart disease.
They used electrocardiography (ECG) to monitor heart activity at a resolution of milliseconds, linking the ECG to a computer that would play brief tones triggered by the subject’s heartbeat.
Each tone lasted only 80 to 180 milliseconds, and after hearing one, subjects were asked whether they thought it lasted longer or shorter than the other tones.
The results show temporal wrinkles at work, say the researchers. Subjects perceived the tones to be longer when the tones were preceded by a shorter heartbeat, and reported tones to be shorter when the tones followed a longer heartbeat.
“The heartbeat is a rhythm that our brain uses to give us our sense of time passing,” Anderson explains. “And it’s not linear – it’s constantly contracting and expanding.”
Although the heart can exert a strong influence on the brain’s perception of time, it is a two-way street, the researchers note. Hearing a tone caused subjects to focus their attention on the sound, an “orienting response” which in turn altered their heart rate and readjusted their experience of time.
Incorrectly perceiving the passage of time may seem like a bad thing, and sometimes it is. But while losing track of time can lead to problems, there may also be adaptive benefits to the type of temporal wrinkles identified in this study.
The heart appears to help the brain function more efficiently with limited resources, the researchers add, influencing how it experiences the passage of time on the smallest scales and functioning at periods too brief for conscious thoughts or feelings.
“Even at these moment-to-moment intervals, our sense of time fluctuates,” Anderson says. “A pure influence of the heart, from beat to beat, helps create a sense of time.”
The study was published in Psychophysiology.