The new Cornell study addresses something different: how we perceive the passage of microseconds. Understanding those mechanisms may help us to manage trauma, in which instantaneous experiences are remembered as drawn out, Dr. Ogden said.
When trying to assess the importance of an experience, she said, “our brain just looks back and says, Well, how many memories did we make?”
She added, “When you have this really rich memory, richer than you would normally get in a 15-minute period of your life, that’s going to trick you into thinking that it was long.”
Research into perception of time has focused, until recently, on different areas of the brain, said Hugo Critchley, a professor of psychiatry at Brighton and Sussex Medical School who has studied how heartbeats affect memory for words and fear responses.
“I think there’s much greater appreciation that cognitive functions are intimately linked, perhaps even grounded in, the control of the body, whereas most of the psychology up to the 1990s dismisses the body as being something controlled at the level of the brain stem,” said Dr. Critchley, who was not involved in the Cornell heartbeat study.
Previous research has investigated how physical arousal is connected to stress processing, and emotional states like anxiety and panic, Dr. Critchley said. The new study expands on that by focusing on the role of the heart in a nonemotional function, the perception of time, which can be linked to larger distortions in thinking.
“You can’t look at cognitive function in isolation,” he said. “Even understanding how the brain develops and starts representing internal mental states, people are looking at the primacy of the inescapable internal information you need to control to keep alive.”
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