The P3 and the subjective experience of time

The P3 (or P300) is an event related potential (ERP) component that has commonly been associated with attentional mechanisms and the updating of expectations. It can be evoked by stimuli in oddball paradigms, where a low-frequency stimulus (the “oddball”) is shown intermixed with high-frequency stimuli (the “standards”). For example, a subject in such a paradigm might be shown a series of words in white font (the standard stimuli), and much more rarely, be shown a word in red font (the oddball). This oddball stimulus commonly elicits a P3 at centro-occipital electrodes, one which is more positive in amplitude compared with the standard stimuli.

Oddball paradigms are also commonly cited in the time perception literature: canonically, the duration of oddball stimuli is overestimated, relative to the standard stimuli. Given this commonality, could the P3 be a neural correlate of this temporal distortion? A recent study by Ernst et al. investigated this question explicitly.

This study used an oddball paradigm as described above, where the standard and oddball stimuli varied in duration (from 600 – 1120 ms). After the presentation of an oddball stimulus, subjects were asked whether this was shorter or longer in duration relative to the preceding standards1. The durations of the stimuli were chosen such that the P3 occurred well before the duration judgement was required (and indeed before the termination of the oddball). This way, it was possible to test whether the amplitude of the relatively early P3 predicted the subsequent duration judgement.

The behavioural data confirmed that time overestimations were observed for the oddball stimuli; the typical temporal oddball effect. Analysis also confirmed the primary hypothesis, larger P3 amplitude led to overestimation of the oddball stimuli. Specifically, the P3 was larger for overestimated, compared to correct trials. (The P3 was also larger for correctly classified “long” judgements compared to correctly classified “short” judgements.) Thus, in trials where the oddball was overestimated, the P3 closely resembled that in correctly judged trials where the oddball was actually longer. In sum, these findings suggest that the P3 tracked the perceived duration of the oddball stimuli.

Average ERP amplitudes at electrode Pz, and scalp distributions, split by duration judgement.
Average ERP amplitudes at electrode Pz, and scalp distributions, split by duration judgement.

The researchers also used a multivariate pattern recognition technique in a supplementary analysis. Here, a classifier was trained to discriminate between standard and oddball stimuli on the basis of the ERP data. Classification accuracy was assessed across the different time windows, and showed above-chance accuracy from 125 ms after oddball presentation, reflecting general ERP differences consistent with the scalp distribution of the P3. By assessing the output of the classifier on trials pooled into correct short, correct long, and overestimated durations, they were able to recapitulate the main findings of the ERP analysis (but for a generated, essentially synthetic, estimated ERP) over the time window of 375 – 600 ms. In essence, because the classifier selectively reproduced an ERP response to oddball stimuli, this analysis lessens the likelihood that some other experimental feature was responsible for the difference in duration perception. Similarly, given the scalp distribution and time window, it also provides some data-driven support that the P3 was responsible for the effect, without specifically pre-selecting for the P32.

Overall, this study provides clear support for the hypothesis that the P3 is a neural correlate of the temporal oddball effect. Given that the P3 has been implicated a rather wide variety of phenomena, these phenomena can now also be interrogated from the perspective of time perception. There is also an ample opportunity for future research to ascertain whether the P3 is either necessary or sufficient for temporal distortions in a wider range of paradigms. In general, this study has delineated the P3 as a valuable component of interest for ongoing time perception research that uses EEG.

Source paper:

Ernst, B., Reichard, S. M., Riepl, R. F., Steinhauser, R., Zimmermann, S. F., & Steinhauser, M. (2017). The P3 and the subjective experience of time. Neuropsychologia, 103, 12–19.

  1. Notably, there were more trials in which the oddball durations were actually shorter than the standards, ostensibly to increase the number of overestimations. One potential issue is that participants may have tried to balance their proportion of short and long judgements, resulting in some “overestimations” that were due to a decision bias, rather than a perceptual bias. ↩︎
  2. It should be noted, however, that the classifier was trained on all of the electrodes, and not just those located centro-occipitally. ↩︎