An illusion shows that the brain plays with our perception of time

English researchers have shown in a very concrete way how the brain can alter our perception of time to make it correspond to what it considers to be reality.

Medicine has advanced at a spectacular speed since the introduction of modern principles. But if we know today the functioning of many organs at the fingertips, or almost, there are still some whose secrets are particularly impenetrable, starting with the brain. English researchers have just shown it again with an astonishing study, which affirms that our brain disrupts our perception of time so that it corresponds to our expectations.

It has long been known that our perception of our environment is a synthesis of many external factors. The nervous system collects a lot of information (images, sounds, etc.) through various sensors (retina, eardrums, etc.); behind the scenes, the brain is then responsible for arbitrating to build a conscious mental image. This sensory system works so well that it is found in different forms in almost all life forms.

From perception to consciousness

But for the most developed beings, and in particular those endowed with consciousness like humans, this represents a very large amount of information. Far too important, in fact, to manage everything consciously; the brain therefore deals with a large part of these issues behind the scenes, without our realizing it.

But this operation also has a fundamental limit. To move from perception to active awareness, we really have no choice but to take our brain’s interpretation at face value. And that’s the rub.

We already know for a fact that there may be a big gap between reality and our perception of a situation, in particular for everything related to time. And the work of this English team, spotted by ScienceAlert, has just illustrated that this has very concrete consequences on our perception of reality.

An ingenious perceptual illusion

To illustrate this, they have set up an experiment that is as ingenious as it is revealing. Unfortunately, they did not publish a video to illustrate it. But the concept is easy to visualize. They showed over 600 volunteers a seemingly simple animation. We see a first square “A” colliding with a second square “B”; the latter then moves towards a third square “C” which then begins to move in turn, in the order ABC.

At first glance, it looks like a deceptively simple logical sequence: Square A collided with Square B, which then collided with Square C. But the animation actually had a time trap. In fact, there was no no causal link between the movements of squares “B” and “C”; if you observe carefully, you notice quite quickly that the “C” begins to move slightly forward the intervention of “B”, therefore in the order ACB.

However, the vast majority of subjects felt that the squares moved in ABC order. This suggests that “the perception of the temporal order seems influenced by the cause and effect relationships expected by the subject”, explain the researchers. To summarize, this means that the interpretation was completely distorted because of an intuitive, but false observation.

The brain takes its wishes for realities

To verify these findings, the researchers conducted a second, comparable experiment. But this time, they asked the subjects to show the precise timing of each movement. The goal was to get them to focus primarily on timing, not apparent cause and effect.

But there again, most brains have been fooled; a clear majority still believed that “B” had moved before “C”. These two results seem to reinforce the same interpretation: this causal relationship is the brain that built it from scratch to make it correspond to the reality expected by the subject.

We quickly realized that when a subject expects a result, the expectation is so strong that even if we reverse the order, the brain insists and puts the events in the order that seems logical to it.”. And this even if an element is directly in contradiction – in this case the timing. In other words: when it comes to time, the brain tends to take its wishes for realities !

The concrete implications of this “perceptual illusion” are quite blurry; but it can be expected that this phenomenon will have a considerable impact on many aspects of our lives. It is therefore an interesting new piece of the great puzzle of the mechanisms of consciousness.

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