Attention and the subjective expansion of time

Percept Psychophys. 2004 Oct;66(7):1171-89. doi: 10.3758/bf03196844.


During brief, dangerous events, such as car accidents and robberies, many people report that events seem to pass in slow motion, as if time had slowed down. We have measured a similar, although less dramatic, effect in response to unexpected, nonthreatening events. We attribute the subjective expansion of time to the engagement of attention and its influence on the amount of perceptual information processed. We term the effect time's subjective expansion (TSE) and examine here the objective temporal dynamics of these distortions. When a series of stimuli are shown in succession, the low-probability oddball stimulus in the series tends to last subjectively longer than the high-probability stimulus even when they last the same objective duration. In particular, (1) there is a latency of at least 120 msec between stimulus onset and the onset of TSE, which may be preceded by subjective temporal contraction; (2) there is a peak in TSE at which subjective time is particularly distorted at a latency of 225 msec after stimulus onset; and (3) the temporal dynamics of TSE are approximately the same in the visual and the auditory domains. Two control experiments (in which the methods of magnitude estimation and stimulus reproduction were used) replicated the temporal dynamics of TSE revealed by the method of constant stimuli, although the initial peak was not apparent with these methods. In addition, a third, control experiment (in which the method of single stimuli was used) showed that TSE in the visual domain can occur because of semantic novelty, rather than image novelty per se. Overall, the results support the view that attentional orienting underlies distortions in perceived duration.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Discrimination Learning
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Perceptual Distortion*
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Psychophysics
  • Reaction Time
  • Size Perception*
  • Time Perception*