Does temporal binding involve a slow-down of the pacemaker?

Temporal binding is a phenomenon whereby the interval between an action and its outcome appears subjectively shorter that it really is. Much of the research into temporal binding has focused on whether the initial action must be self-generated, or whether any event perceived as “causal” or “intentional” is sufficient to compress the interval between the action and its corresponding effect. Temporal binding has clear relevance to timing and time perception. For example, self-initiated intervals are perceived as shorter than non-self-initiated intervals, for both duration judgment and duration reproduction. Despite this, temporal binding has most frequently been used as a measure of agency, with a larger effect (shorter perceived durations) being taken as a proxy for having higher perceived agency.

However, at least one study has explicitly associated temporal binding with the speed of a hypothetical biological pacemaker. Wenke and Haggard (2009), used an elegant paradigm to demonstrate that the speed of the pacemaker was affected by (or even underlies) temporal binding. Firstly, they used a standard temporal binding paradigm in which participants either actively pressed a button which resulted in a delayed tone, or “passively” had their finger forced to depress the button, also leading to a tone. In agreement with the canonical temporal binding phenomenon, the intervals in the active condition were perceived as significantly shorter than those in the passive condition. The critical innovation of the experiment was to nest a sensory discrimination procedure in the interval between the action and the tone. This involved sequential cutaneous shocks delivered a short time apart, and calibrated to participants’ individual discrimination thresholds.

The researchers found that participants’ ability to discriminate the two shocks was significantly impaired early in the interval (in the active condition), demonstrating that their temporal sensitivity was lower when temporal binding occurred. The implication is that as the rate of perceptual sampling was slower, any universal pacemaker driving this sampling was also slower. However, it’s an open question whether differences in time perception are actually associated with differences in the rate of perceptual sampling. Some researchers argue that duration distortions are a result of retrospective memory processes, while others have shown that information processing is enhanced when time is dilated. Overall, the results of this study appear to support the idea that pacemaker slowing could occur during temporal binding.

However, a new paper by Fereday and Beuhner has countered the claim that pacemaker rate is altered in temporal binding. In their experimental design, they simply nested an additional stimulus within the action/outcome interval and queried participants for an estimate of the duration of that stimulus. Over a range of stimulus types and modalities, they showed that the perceived durations of these nested stimuli were unaffected, despite recreating the classic temporal binding effect. This strongly suggests two alternative possibilities. Firstly, temporal binding may be a result of retrospective, post-hoc recalibration of the interval between the action and outcome, which does not affect interceding events. Secondly, the timing of different stimuli may be governed by their own, dedicated and independent pacemakers.

(An interesting extension to this study would to observe whether temporal binding can occur during temporal binding, by nesting an action/outcome interval within an action/outcome interval!)
(An interesting extension to this study would to observe whether temporal binding can occur during temporal binding, by nesting an action/outcome interval within an action/outcome interval. What about three nested action/outcome intervals? Presumably this mirrors the complex perception of causality in the real world: temporal binding all the way down!)

Time perception is integral to our notion of causality (and by extension, learning and inference). Our perception of causality appears to also impact our experience of time: causally related events are estimated as being closer in time, even on the scale of month or years. Why should this be the case? If our perception of time is purely a function of the perceived causality in the world, what implications does this have? Given that research into temporal binding brings us closer to understanding of the perception of both causality and time, as well as the bidirectional relationship between the two, this research agenda holds considerable value for the understanding of the fundamentals of cognition.

Source paper:

Fereday, R., & Buehner, M. J. (2017). Temporal Binding and Internal Clocks: No Evidence for General Pacemaker Slowing. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance.