Oxytocin Can Warp Our Sense Of Time

The hormone oxytocin is responsible for the temporal compression effect, where the duration of social interaction feels shorter than it actually is.

AsianScientist (Jun. 11, 2018) – A research group in China has demonstrated that the hormone oxytocin alters our perception of time, according to a study published in eLife.

Our subjective sense of time deviates—sometimes significantly—from physical time. This is because the brain has no direct access to physical time and infers time from the neural representation of external events.

Subjective time is believed to be ‘warped’ by the neural energy involved in representing sensory inputs. Its deviation from physical time has mostly been attributed to the sensory properties (e.g., size, luminance, speed, etc.) of external stimuli.

In the present study, a research group led by Dr. Zhou Wen and Dr. Jiang Yi at the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, demonstrated the effects of oxytocin on the perception of time. As part of this study, participants viewed two sequentially presented point-light motion sequences—one portraying two agents engaging in a face-to-face communicative interaction, the other non-communicative—in random order.

One of the two motion sequences was presented for 1,000 milliseconds, the other for 400-1,600 milliseconds. Participants were then asked to press one of two buttons to indicate which motion sequence was longer in duration.

The results revealed a temporal compression effect: motion sequences showing agents acting communicatively were perceived to be significantly shorter in duration in comparison with those acting non-communicatively.

The effect disappeared when the motion sequences were shown upside down, when a temporal lag was inserted in between the original upright acting agents, and when the two upright agents in each display were spatially swapped such that they faced in opposite directions.

The researchers then assessed participants’ social proficiency with the autism spectrum quotient and found that socially less proficient individuals were less susceptible to the temporal compression effect than socially proficient ones. Social proficiency has been linked to one’s endogenous oxytocin level.

The researchers further showed that intranasal oxytocin administration promoted the temporal compression effect in socially less proficient individuals. In socially proficient individuals with overall higher levels of endogenous oxytocin, the temporal compression effect was diminished following the application of an oxytocin antagonist called atosiban.

These findings highlight the idiosyncrasy of subjective time and represent an initial effort to trace it back to personality factors and their neuroendocrine origins. They also open up an avenue for probing and manipulating automatic processing of complex social interplays at the individual level, and may lead to benefits for individuals with social deficits, such as those with autism spectrum disorder.

The article can be found at Liu et al. (2018) Perception of Social Interaction Compresses Subjective Duration in an Oxytocin-dependent Manner.


Source: Chinese Academy of Sciences; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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