Professional ball game players report the feeling of the ball ‘slowing-down’ just before they hit it. Confirming these anecdotal comments, a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B today, shows that time is perceived to slow down during the period of action preparation, as the result of an increased intake of visual information.
Researchers from University College London found that the slowing down of subjective flow of time during action preparation is due to an increased intake of sensory information. This brain mechanism might help the player to adapt their planned movement in reaction to last-minute changes in the game around them.
Precise movements are often accompanied by less sensory awareness, and thus any previous report of the illusion of time slowing down, has been associated with the senses overcompensating for this. Here, scientists show for the first time, that time is perceived slowed-down during preparation (rather than execution) of a ballistic reaching movement, involving increased sensory processing.
The researchers asked 56 participants to touch a screen or press a button dependent on specific visual cues. They then had to indicate whether the cue symbol had been displayed for a short or long time (they had received training as to which lengths of time, in control situations, were considered short or long). The experimenters found that the symbols people saw while preparing to move, were perceived to be prolonged, relative to a control condition without movement.
Preparing to reach for the screen increased perceived duration of a visual stimulus. This effect was tightly linked to preparing for action, because time appeared to slow down even more when people were given more instructions about their upcoming movement.
Moreover, participants were able to process the information given by the symbols faster, resulting in higher detection rate of rapidly presented symbols. These findings indicate that visual processing during action preparation is accelerated, with direct effects on perception of time.