DOI: 10.7554/elife.91825.3 ISSN: 2050-084X

A spatial-attentional mechanism underlies action-related distortions of time judgment

Liyu Cao
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Medicine
  • General Neuroscience

Temporal binding has been understood as an illusion in timing judgment. When an action triggers an outcome (e.g. a sound) after a brief delay, the action is reported to occur later than if the outcome does not occur, and the outcome is reported to occur earlier than a similar outcome not caused by an action. We show here that an attention mechanism underlies the seeming illusion of timing judgment. In one method, participants watch a rotating clock hand and report event times by noting the clock hand position when the event occurs. We find that visual spatial attention is critically involved in shaping event time reports made in this way. This occurs because action and outcome events result in shifts of attention around the clock rim, thereby biasing the perceived location of the clock hand. Using a probe detection task to measure attention, we show a difference in the distribution of visual spatial attention between a single-event condition (sound only or action only) and a two-event agency condition (action plus sound). Participants accordingly report the timing of the same event (the sound or the action) differently in the two conditions: spatial attentional shifts masquerading as temporal binding. Furthermore, computational modeling based on the attention measure can reproduce the temporal binding effect. Studies that use time judgment as an implicit marker of voluntary agency should first discount the artefactual changes in event timing reports that actually reflect differences in spatial attention. The study also has important implications for related results in mental chronometry obtained with the clock-like method since Wundt, as attention may well be a critical confounding factor in the interpretation of these studies.

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