Shared and distinct factors driving attention and temporal processing across modalities

Acta Psychol (Amst). 2014 Mar;147:42-50. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2013.07.020. Epub 2013 Aug 24.


In addition to the classic finding that "sounds are judged longer than lights," the timing of auditory stimuli is often more precise and accurate than is the timing of visual stimuli. In cognitive models of temporal processing, these modality differences are explained by positing that auditory stimuli more automatically capture and hold attention, more efficiently closing an attentional switch that allows the accumulation of pulses marking the passage of time (Penney, Gibbon, & Meck, 2000). However, attention is a multifaceted construct, and there has been little attempt to determine which aspects of attention may be related to modality effects. We used visual and auditory versions of the Continuous Temporal Expectancy Task (CTET; O'Connell et al., 2009) a timing task previously linked to behavioral and electrophysiological measures of mind-wandering and attention lapses, and tested participants with or without the presence of a video distractor. Performance in the auditory condition was generally superior to that in the visual condition, replicating standard results in the timing literature. The auditory modality was also less affected by declines in sustained attention indexed by declines in performance over time. In contrast, distraction had an equivalent impact on performance in the two modalities. Analysis of individual differences in performance revealed further differences between the two modalities: Poor performance in the auditory condition was primarily related to boredom whereas poor performance in the visual condition was primarily related to distractibility. These results suggest that: 1) challenges to different aspects of attention reveal both modality-specific and nonspecific effects on temporal processing, and 2) different factors drive individual differences when testing across modalities.

Keywords: Attention; Distraction; Individual differences; Interval timing; Modality; Sustained attention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Adolescent
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Automobile Driving*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Young Adult