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Heart rate influences our perception of time

Since ancient times, the possible role of the heart in the experience of time has been theorized but, until recently, empirical evidence has been scarce. Now, a team of scientists led by Cornell University has conducted an experiment showing that the heart is indeed one of the brain’s important timekeepers, playing a fundamental role in our sense of time passing. The experts found that our momentary perception of time is not continuous but stretches or shrinks with each heartbeat.   

“Time is a dimension of the universe and a core basis for our experience of self,” said study lead author Adam K. Anderson, a professor of Psychology at Cornell. “Our research shows that the moment-to-moment experience of time is synchronized with, and changes with, the length of a heartbeat.”

Previously, time perception has been tested over extended intervals, with researchers arguing that thoughts and emotions often distort our sense of time, making it appear to pass faster or slower. However, such findings tend to focus on how we think about or estimate time, rather than on our direct experience of it in the present.

To better understand this more direct experience, the experts devised an experiment to investigate whether our perception of time is related to physiological rhythms, such as the natural variability in heart rates, starting from the fact that, although our hearts “tick” steadily on average, each interval between beats is slightly longer or shorter than the preceding one.

They enrolled 45 participants aged 18-21, with no history of heart disease, and monitored them with electrocardiography (ECG), measuring heart electrical activity at millisecond resolution. The researchers linked the ECG to a computer that enabled tones lasting between 80 and 180 milliseconds to be triggered by participants’ heartbeats, and asked participants to report whether some tones were longer or shorter in relation to others.

The experiment unveiled a phenomenon called “temporal wrinkles,” structuring our perception of the present moment: when the heartbeat preceding a tone was shorter, participants reported the tone to be longer, and when the heartbeat was longer, they experienced the same sound’s duration as shorter. In addition, the experiment showed that the brain is also influencing the heart: when participants focused their attention on the sounds, this “orienting response” changed their heart rate, which in turn affected their temporal experience. 

“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,” Anderson explained. “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.”

This connection between time perception and the heart suggests that our momentary perception of time is rooted in bioenergetics, helping the brain focus its efforts and resources based on changing body states, such as the heart rate. “These observations systematically demonstrate that the cardiac dynamics, even within a few heartbeats, are related to the temporal decision-making process,” the authors concluded.

The study is published in the journal Psychophysiology.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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