Stronger cortisol response to acute psychosocial stress is correlated with larger decrease in temporal sensitivity

PeerJ. 2016 May 26:4:e2061. doi: 10.7717/peerj.2061. eCollection 2016.


As a fundamental dimension of cognition and behavior, time perception has been found to be sensitive to stress. However, how one's time perception changes with responses to stress is still unclear. The present study aimed to investigate the relationship between stress-induced cortisol response and time perception. A group of 40 healthy young male adults performed a temporal bisection task before and after the Trier Social Stress Test for a stress condition. A control group of 27 male participants completed the same time perception task without stress induction. In the temporal bisection task, participants were first presented with short (400 ms) and long (1,600 ms) visual signals serving as anchor durations and then required to judge whether the intermediate probe durations were more similar to the short or the long anchor. The bisection point and Weber ratio were calculated and indicated the subjective duration and the temporal sensitivity, respectively. Data showed that participants in the stress group had significantly increased salivary cortisol levels, heart rates, and negative affects compared with those in the control group. The results did not show significant group differences for the subjective duration or the temporal sensitivity. However, the results showed a significant positive correlation between stress-induced cortisol responses and decreases in temporal sensitivity indexed by increases in the Weber ratio. This correlation was not observed for the control group. Changes in subjective duration indexed by temporal bisection points were not correlated with cortisol reactivity in both the groups. In conclusion, the present study found that although no significant change was observed in time perception after an acute stressor on the group-level comparison (i.e., stress vs. nonstress group), individuals with stronger cortisol responses to stress showed a larger decrease in temporal sensitivity. This finding may provide insight into the understanding of the relationship between stress and temporal sensitivity.

Keywords: Acute stress; Cortisol; Temporal bisection; Temporal sensitivity; The Trier Social Stress Test; Time perception.

Grants and funding

This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31100734, 81371203, 91124003). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.