Distortion Of Time Perception Offset By Sense Of Control
October 25, 2012

Distortion Of Time Perception From Emotions Offset By Sense Of Control

Jedidiah Becker for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

There are few more fascinating and mind-bending frontiers in fields of neuroscience and psychology than the study of how the brain perceives time. While symphonies, stock markets and our daily schedules are conveniently constructed around the well-defined, predictable progression of what might be called 'objective time', our brains take a much more flexible approach to dealing with passing events, stretching, condensing and generally distorting our perception of time in response to a variety of external and internal factors.

In fact, brain time — or our mind's perception of time — is an inherently subjective phenomenon. And it is perhaps never more subjective than when we are confronted with events that bring about a strong emotional response. Numerous studies in recent decades have repeatedly highlighted the fact that both our spatial perception and time perception can be measurably affected by negative or positive emotional experiences.

For instance, study subjects who are shown images that the brain associates with intensely positive experiences — like, say, erotic scenes — will consistently report that these images flit by more quickly than intensely negative pictures such as a grisly murder scene, even when both images are displayed for the exact same length of time.

"We imagine that we're perfect at judging time, but we're not," says Simona Buetti, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "If you see a disgusting image, like a photo of a mutilated body, you will perceive this image lasting longer than if you see a picture of people on a roller coaster, or an erotic image.”

Buetti and her colleague Alejandro Lleras recently set out to see if they could offset the brain's tendency to distort time in emotionally intense situations. The results of their study, published in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology, demonstrate that this stretching and shortening of perceived time can be corrected simply by making a person feel that they are in control of the situation.

“The major contribution of this study is to show that when you give participants a feeling of control, even if it's not perfect and even if it's totally illusory in an experiment, then you can make all these time distortions vanish," explained Buetti.

While a number of studies in recent years have used strong images to stimulate emotional responses and study their effect on time perception, the subjects of these past experiments always played a passive role in viewing the images.

“In these previous studies, participants never had a sense of control over the experimental events. Images were just presented and participants simply reacted to them as they appeared,” explains Lleras, a professor psychology at the University of Illinois and a recipient of the prestigious CAREER award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“What is novel in our study is that participants are for the first time being given a sense that they can control the emotional events that they are witnessing in the lab."

Buetti and Lleras set up a series of experiments in which study participants were told that they could use a keyboard to increase the frequency with which emotionally charged images appeared on a computer screen in front of them. Behind the scenes, however, it was the researchers who were actually controlling the frequency of positive or negative images. For some participants, the researchers mirrored the subjects wishes in order to give them the illusion that they were controlling the ratio of positive to negative images. For others, they did the opposite, making the subjects feel that they had no control over how often positive or negative pictures appeared.

In order to test the strength and boundaries of their hypothesis — that a sense of control can change how a person experiences emotional events and thereby curb the brain's tendency to distort time — Buetti and Lleras even used participants in one of their studies who had an unusually strong fear of spiders.

As expected and previously demonstrated, participants in all of their studies consistently overestimated the duration of time that they viewed negative images and underestimated the duration of positive images.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that the intensity of a person's fear of spiders was directly proportional to their perception of how long they viewed the spider image. People who were most afraid of the eight-legged arachnids also tended to most greatly overestimate the length of time that they looked at the picture.

"For spider-fearful individuals, it's as if time slows down when they are confronted with spiders," said Lleras.

However, when the researchers introduced the illusion of control into the experiment, they noted that the effects of emotion on time perception were more or less neutralized. In each study in the series, the researchers found that if they simply allowed the participants to believe that they were in control of how often the images appeared, the time distortions typically associated with both positive and negative images could largely be eliminated — even for those subjects most terrified of spiders.

"Across experiments, we found that the same images, the same horrible or positive images are actually treated differently if you give a sense of control to participants," explained Buetti. "All of a sudden, they're looking at the world differently; they're reacting to the world differently."

"Even among spider-fearful participants, images of spiders no longer slowed time," added Lleras.

There was, however, one important exception to these results. In one last variation on the experiment, Lleras and Buetti allowed participants to feel as though they were in control of negative events — that is, they made them believe that they could increase the frequency of emotionally disturbing images. In contrast to the results of the other versions of the study, the team observed that when they asked participants to act against their instinctive avoidance of negative experiences, they were not able to eliminate the time distortion through control alone.

By going against their basic desire for well-being, explained Lleras, even a strong sense of control “failed to inoculate them from the time distortions associated with viewing very disturbing negative images.”

Lleras and Buetti expect that their study — titled "Perceiving Control Over Aversive and Fearful Events Can Alter How We Experience Those Events: An Investigation of Time Perception in Spider-Fearful Individuals" — will have important implications for future research in this field.