A hierarchical model of temporal perception

Trends Cogn Sci. 1997 May;1(2):56-61. doi: 10.1016/S1364-6613(97)01008-5.


Temporal perception comprises subjective phenomena such as simultaneity, successiveness, temporal order, subjective present, temporal continuity and subjective duration. These elementary temporal experiences are hierarchically related to each other. Functional system states with a duration of 30 ms are implemented by neuronal oscillations and they provide a mechanism to define successiveness. These system states are also responsible for the identification of basic events. For a sequential representation of several events time tags are allocated, resulting in an ordinal representation of such events. A mechanism of temporal integration binds successive events into perceptual units of 3 s duration. Such temporal integration, which is automatic and presemantic, is also operative in movement control and other cognitive activities. Because of the omnipresence of this integration mechanism it is used for a pragmatic definition of the subjective present. Temporal continuity is the result of a semantic connection between successive integration intervals. Subjective duration is known to depend on mental load and attentional demand, high load resulting in long time estimates. In the hierarchical model proposed, system states of 30 ms and integration intervals of 3 s, together with a memory store, provide an explanatory neuro-cognitive machinery for differential subjective duration.