Our heartbeats cause “wrinkles in time” says new study


The heart has long been called our “ticker.” Now, a new study shows why that might be the case even more than we previously imagined. Researchers at Cornell University have demonstrated that our perception of time shifts with the length of our heartbeats.

For some adults, who have an average heart rate of 60 beats per minute, the heart can be a pretty handy built-in timekeeper. But even for those without such a precise pulse, new research out of Cornell University shows that the heart can still influence the perception of time.

In a paper with the intriguing title, “Wrinkles in Subsecond Time Perception are Synchronized to the Heart,” lead author Saeedeh Sadeghi, a doctoral student in the field of psychology, describes how he and his colleagues came to this conclusion. They designed an experiment that connected 45 subjects aged 18 to 21 to electrocardiogram (ECG) machines designed to measure each heartbeat – and the space between them – down to the millisecond level. They also linked the ECG machine up to a computer programmed to play a tone at every heartbeat lasting just 80-180 milliseconds.

In humans, even those with the most steady pulses, there is actually a very slight difference in the amount of time each heartbeat takes. The researchers wanted to see if this variability changed the participants’ perceptions of time.

Sure enough, immediately following a shorter heartbeat, the test subjects perceived the tone as lasting longer than it actually was. The reverse was true as well: when a heartbeat was longer, the perception was that the tone was shorter. Because reactions to the tones were directly related to the miniscule changes in heart rhythms, the researchers concluded that our heartbeats are intricately, if imperceptibly, linked to how we perceive the world, especially time. They called these variabilities in perception “temporal wrinkles.”

“The heartbeat is a rhythm that our brain is using to give us our sense of time passing, and that is not linear—it is constantly contracting and expanding,” said study co-author Adam K. Anderson, professor in Cornell’s Department of Psychology and in the College of Human Ecology.

“Even at these moment-to-moment intervals, our sense of time is fluctuating,” he added. “A pure influence of the heart, from beat to beat, helps create a sense of time.”

The paper has been published in the journal Psychophysiology.

New Atlas, 7 March 2023
; https://newatlas.com