Strange Illusion Shows The Human Brain Alters Time to Maintain Our Expectations

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Indication of flash timing based on perception of the sequence.
(Bechlivanidis et al., Psychological Science, 2022)


In the new experiments, Bechlivanidis and his team again showed participants the ACB animation, but this time they recorded the participants' responses in real-time, asking them to indicate the moments when B and C begin to move by synchronizing their timing with a brief flash that appeared on the screen.

If the memory hypothesis were correct, as per the figure above, participants would indicate the timing accurately in real-time. However, despite repeated viewings, the experiment showed people actually perceiving B moving earlier than it really did, while C appeared to move later.

“When watching the reordered ACB sequence, participants actually perceive B happening earlier and C happening later, at timings that in total approach the temporal displacement necessary to turn the ACB sequence into the causal ABC one,” the researchers explain in their paper.

“Displacements of such magnitude were not observed when one of the objects was hidden. It is thus the illusory causal context that produces the online reversal of temporal order.”

While there's much we still don't fully understand about this perceptual illusion, the researchers say our ability to objectively perceive the timing of a signal is superseded by inferences we make regarding the timing of its transmission, irrespective of the nature of the signals.

In this case, the domino-like physics of an assumed ABC chain of events overrides our ability to perceive what's really happening, with strong causal expectations overpowering incoming information from a visual signal.

As for how deep the illusion goes remains to be seen, but it's just the latest evidence of the surprising ways our perception is affected, as the brain tries to juggle the non-stop flood of visual information we're bombarded with.

The findings are reported in Psychological Science.

Article originally posted in Science Alert.


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