How our hearts distort our perception of time

Summary: Our perception of passing time may depend on the signals our brain receives from our body, especially our heartbeats.

Source: Holloway Royal University

A recent study by academics at Royal Holloway, published in Current biologyshows how our heartbeats can lead to distortions in our perception of time.

The study was led by Dr Irena Arslanova and Professor Manos Tsakiris from the Department of Psychology and investigates how the perception of passing time depends on the signals our brain receives from our body.

People can feel time slipping by when they are busy or excited about something, but at other times time can drag on when people are bored. This suggests that our experience of time is often distorted and does not correspond to real time.

Many influential theories have looked at potential brain mechanisms to explain these distortions, but previous studies have not examined the importance of signals from the heart to the brain in producing these distortions.

The heart and brain are in constant communication as our heart sends signals to the brain with every heartbeat, providing crucial information about the state of the body. The researchers used this idea to better understand how time distortions can occur.

In the new study, two experiments were conducted in which the researchers presented brief events either during a heartbeat (the systolic phase of the cardiac cycle), when the heart contracts and sends signals to the brain, or between heartbeats (the diastolic phase), when the heart relaxes and does not send information to the brain.

They then measured people’s perception of time by asking participants to judge whether what they perceived was of longer or shorter duration compared to a reference duration.

When events were presented at diastole, it led people to perceive time as longer than their actual duration, as if their duration had lengthened. At systole, people perceived the same event as being shorter, as if it were contracting in time.

Dr Arslanova from Royal Holloway’s Department of Psychology, said: “Our findings illustrate the point the novelist Murakami made in his novel ‘Kafka on the Shore’ when he wrote ‘time expands, then contracts, all in phase with the restlessness of the heart.

This shows the outline of a head made of clocks
People can feel time slipping by when they are busy or excited about something, but at other times time can drag on when people are bored. Image is in public domain

“These patterns of contraction and expansion demonstrate how our perception of time is constantly influenced by our internal physiological states.”

In the second experiment, participants did a similar task, but with pictures of faces with emotional expressions. Again, the same overall pattern of acceleration at systole and deceleration at diastole was observed. More importantly, when these faces were perceived to be more emotionally intense, time generally accelerated.

The results of this study provide a more mechanistic understanding of how common temporal distortions result from phasic modulations within each heartbeat. The findings may have important implications given the role timing plays in several highly skilled tasks that humans perform (e.g., driving, playing an instrument, or certain sports) and the implication of time perception in several mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. .

Professor Manos Tsakiris from Royal Holloway’s Department of Psychology, added: “These findings highlight the complex relationship between what happens in our body and how signals from our body, in this case the heart, can act. as a subjective stimulator of passage. of time.”

About this time perception research news

Author: Press office
Source: Holloway Royal University
Contact: Press Office – Royal Holloway University
Picture: Image is in public domain

Original research: Free access.
“Perceived time expands and contracts with every heartbeat” by Irena Arslanova et al. Current biology


Perceived time expands and contracts with every heartbeat

Strong points

  • Time-locking of identical stimuli to distinct cardiac phases distorts perceived duration
  • Heart-induced time distortion is modulated by the arousal felt
  • At low arousal, systolic time contraction is counterbalanced by diastolic time expansion
  • At high arousal, diastolic time expansion shifts to time contraction


The perception of passing time can be distorted. Emotional experiences, especially arousal, can contract or expand lived duration via their interactions with attentional and sensory processing mechanisms.

Current models suggest that perceived duration can be encoded from accumulation processes and time-varying neural dynamics.

Yet all neural dynamics and information processing ensue against a background of continuous interoceptive signals from within the body. Indeed, phasic fluctuations within the cardiac cycle have an impact on neural and information processing.

Here we show that these momentary heart fluctuations distort lived time and that their effect interacts with subjectively experienced arousal. In a temporal bisection task, the durations (200–400 ms) of an emotionally neutral visual form or auditory tone (experiment 1) or an image displaying happy or fearful facial expressions (experiment 2) were classified as short or long.

In both experiments, stimulus presentation was time-locked to systole, when the heart is contracting and baroreceptors send signals to the brain, and to diastole, when the heart is relaxing and baroreceptors are at rest. .

When participants judged the duration of emotionally neural stimuli (experiment 1), systole led to temporal contraction, while diastole led to temporal expansion. These heart distortions were further modulated by perceived facial expression arousal ratings (Experiment 2).

At low arousal, systole contracted while diastole increased time, but as arousal increased, this heart-induced temporal distortion disappeared, shifting the perception of duration toward contraction.

Thus, lived time contracts and expands with each heartbeat – a balance that is disturbed by heightened arousal.

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