Temporal context calibrates interval timing


We use our sense of time to identify temporal relationships between events and to anticipate actions. The degree to which we can exploit temporal contingencies depends on the variability of our measurements of time. We asked humans to reproduce time intervals drawn from different underlying distributions. As expected, production times were more variable for longer intervals. However, production times exhibited a systematic regression toward the mean. Consequently, estimates for a sample interval differed depending on the distribution from which it was drawn. A performance-optimizing Bayesian model that takes the underlying distribution of samples into account provided an accurate description of subjects' performance, variability and bias. This finding suggests that the CNS incorporates knowledge about temporal uncertainty to adapt internal timing mechanisms to the temporal statistics of the environment.

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Figure 1: The ready-set-go time-reproduction task.
Figure 2: Time reproduction in different temporal contexts.
Figure 3: The observer model for time reproduction.
Figure 4: MLE, MAP and BLS estimators.
Figure 5: Time-reproduction behavior in humans and model observers.
Figure 6: Time reproduction behavior in humans and model observers: model comparison.


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We are grateful to G. Horwitz for sharing resources and to both G. Horwitz and V. de Lafuente for their feedback on the manuscript. This work was supported by a fellowship from Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and research grants EY11378 and RR000166 from the US National Institutes of Health.

Author information

M.J. designed the experiment, collected and analyzed the data and performed the computational modeling. M.N.S. helped in data analysis and provided intellectual support throughout the study. M.J. and M.N.S. wrote the manuscript.

Correspondence to Mehrdad Jazayeri.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Jazayeri, M., Shadlen, M. Temporal context calibrates interval timing. Nat Neurosci 13, 1020–1026 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2590

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