Background: Current theories of interval timing assume that humans and other animals time as if using a single, absolute stopwatch that can be stopped or reset on command. Here we evaluate the alternative view that psychological time is represented by multiple clocks, and that these clocks create separate temporal contexts by which duration is judged in a relative manner. Two predictions of the multiple-clock hypothesis were tested. First, that the multiple clocks can be manipulated (stopped and/or reset) independently. Second, that an event of a given physical duration would be perceived as having different durations in different temporal contexts, i.e., would be judged differently by each clock.
Methodology/principal findings: Rats were trained to time three durations (e.g., 10, 30, and 90 s). When timing was interrupted by an unexpected gap in the signal, rats reset the clock used to time the "short" duration, stopped the "medium" duration clock, and continued to run the "long" duration clock. When the duration of the gap was manipulated, the rats reset these clocks in a hierarchical order, first the "short", then the "medium", and finally the "long" clock. Quantitative modeling assuming re-allocation of cognitive resources in proportion to the relative duration of the gap to the multiple, simultaneously timed event durations was used to account for the results.
Conclusions/significance: These results indicate that the three event durations were effectively timed by separate clocks operated independently, and that the same gap duration was judged relative to these three temporal contexts. Results suggest that the brain processes the duration of an event in a manner similar to Einstein's special relativity theory: A given time interval is registered differently by independent clocks dependent upon the context.