Powerful Images So Iconic They Distort Your Perception of Time

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Our perception of time can be influenced by a range of factors, from heartbeats to eye contact to the familiarity of our surroundings. A new study reveals that the way images look can also affect how we perceive the passage of time. Moreover, the time someone thinks they’ve spent looking at an image can impact their ability to recall it.

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In a series of experiments, researchers from George Mason University in the US asked 170 people to view a series of images that flashed on a screen for varying lengths of time, all under a second. Participants then had to press a button indicating whether they believed they had seen the images for a short or long duration.

The results showed that larger scenes and more memorable images tricked the brain into thinking they had been viewed for longer than they were, while cluttered images seemed to make time compress.

Previous research has indicated that the way images affect time perception could relate to attention, with larger, bolder, brighter images thought to stretch time by drawing our focus. However, these same features could also distract the part of our brain responsible for keeping track of time, leading to a perceived faster passage of time.

The content of images might also play a role, resonating with some people more than others. This latest study adds another element to the mix: the memorability of images. According to some evidence, memorability is a unique quality that attracts our brains in ways independent of attention.

“Do these images seem longer because they are more memorable, or are they more memorable because they seem longer?” cognitive neuroscientist Alex Ma and colleagues asked in their study. Their experiments suggest both could be true. Participants were asked to return to the lab to view a new set of images, half of which they had seen the day before. Those rated as memorable were perceived to have been viewed for a longer duration, and this effect was consistent across trials. Additionally, images perceived as longer lasting were also better remembered.

The researchers propose that the time dilation effect of memorable images might help the visual system process information, overcoming bottlenecks. “In this way, time is dilated or compressed to increase the amount of information that can be processed in any given instance,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

To test this idea, the researchers used an artificial neural network to model the ventral visual system, where images are progressively processed over time. The study found that more memorable images are processed faster, which could explain both the elongation of perceived time and the improved precision of perceived durations.

However, what makes an image memorable is subjective. Other research indicates that emotional images can distort time, which aligns with the fact that brain regions regulating time also process emotions.

There’s still much to learn about how our brains perceive time and how this varies among individuals. This study makes one thing clear: while our biological clocks might tick at a steady pace, our brain’s perception of time is far from constant.

“This study establishes a connection between image features, time perception, and memory, paving the way for further research using models of visual processing,” the authors conclude.

The study was published in Nature Human Behaviour.

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