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In search of our sixth sense: timing

22 February 2018
Hedderik van Rijn: We can discard the current theory about having a stopwatch in our brain.(Photo: Henk Veenstra)

In 2017, Professor of Cognitive Science and Neuroscience Hedderik van Rijn was awarded a prestigious Vici grant by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). He received € 1.5 million for research into how people time certain activities. According to Van Rijn, we can discard the current theory about having a stopwatch in our brain.

Text: Angela Rijnen

We do it without thinking. Looking in the rear-view mirror while we’re driving or nodding and saying ‘hm... yes’ during a conversation. And when we pause to think while we’re talking and mumble ‘er...’ to indicate that it’s still our turn. Hedderik van Rijn cites these examples to illustrate that people have another ‘sense’ that can estimate time intervals, because timing is crucial in these activities. But there is still a lot we don’t know about how this sense works and develops.


‘There are plenty of theories in the literature’, explains Van Rijn. ‘They are based on experiments in which test subjects are given time tasks. Someone knocks on a table, for instance, and the test subjects must replicate the interval between the knocks. The theory behind experiments like this is that our brains have a stopwatch, which can accurately measure time intervals. This may work in a laboratory, but it’s very different in real life.’ ‘A stopwatch indicates a precise time interval’, he continues. ‘But a stopwatch is far too simplistic to explain the way we act in real situations. While you’re driving, you subconsciously time everything: when you last looked in the rear-view mirror, when you checked the speedometer, the discussion you’re having with your partner, the fact that the children in the back have been too quiet for too long. We are multitasking and all the time intervals are different. All our behaviour is timed; this is a continuous process without a start or finish.’

Baring your all

Van Rijn wants to construct a theoretical model that explains how we are able to estimate all these time intervals simultaneously. ‘We recently noted that the short-term memory stores information about how long ago you stopped performing a particular activity. As this information starts to fade, something in the brain sends out a signal.’ Van Rijn’s proposal for the Vici grant combines several empirical research projects designed to study this discovery and build a computer model that can assess the results and theories in relation to one another: the Continuative Timing Theory. ‘I’m not necessarily looking for a smart robot’, he says. ‘I want to find a formal model that describes precisely how it works, forces you to bare all, as it were. If your theory isn’t complete, your programme won’t work.’

Temporal fingerprint

The empirical research comprises several components. ‘It’s all about pinpointing the part of the brain that can recognise a vague image of a task at a specific moment in time. You can’t measure stable information, but you can measure information that goes from A to B in the brain. So you should be able to see brain activity of this kind immediately before someone acts within a time interval.’ His team of researchers are conducting laboratory experiments using fMRI and EEG. In addition, test subjects ‘hit the road’ in a drive simulator while their eye movements are monitored using eye tracking as they drive. Van Rijn hopes that the test subjects will leave a temporal fingerprint : the intervals at which they perform tasks such as looking in the mirrors or checking the speedometer. The researchers will also analyse data sets of saved games , digital information about what video game players do. ‘They’re well-trained in timing, as a lot happens at the same time in these games.’

Huge implications

Finally, Van Rijn hopes to discover whether timing is linked to body temperature. ‘Test subjects take a hot or lukewarm bath and we measure their internal temperature. We’ve already noticed that the internal clock speeds up as the temperature rises. Time seems to pass more slowly for the test subjects, and the time intervals between the tasks are shorter. So I think we need to incorporate differences in body temperature into our model.’ This research line includes both fundamental and applied elements. ‘I want them to overlap in the middle’, says Van Rijn. He can also imagine practical applications. ‘If a rise in body temperature accelerates the internal clock, then it’s possible that tasks that depend on timing are not performed optimally in hot conditions. The implications could be huge. Take a police officer approaching an armed suspect on a hot day. He may shoot too quickly after warning the suspect. You could take this into account when training officers or in their clothing when it’s hot.’ People with Parkinson’s disease have trouble with timing. ‘Who knows, perhaps we’ll be able to test them sooner in future, before the symptoms become serious. It’s also possible that the social problems experienced by people with ADHD or autism are connected with a lack of accurate timing. You could try to find ways of compensating for this or devise a training course for them.’

Real life

Van Rijn is a specialist in formally thinking, as he puts it, about psychological and neurocognitive research. ‘I do this to prove that certain models are either correct or incorrect. But although my work focuses on the fundamental side, I’d rather step outside these walls than conduct my research in a lab setting that doesn’t reflect real life. And if my research means that one police officer doesn’t draw his gun or that I can somehow help people with Parkinson’s disease, ADHD or other disorders, then I’ll be a happy man.’


Hedderik van Rijn

Last modified:12 March 2020 9.24 p.m.
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